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Power authority OKs Koelmel as chairman

Eighteen months after taking office, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday took firm control of the state's largest public power agency with the selection of a Buffalo banker as its new chairman.

The New York Power Authority trustees approved John Koelmel, president of First Niagara Financial Group, as the new chairman of the public agency with holdings that include the Niagara Power Project and more than 1,400 miles of transmission lines across the state.

"Thank you, my fellow trustees, for your vote of support," Koelmel said during the board's meeting at the authority's Westchester County headquarters.

Among the items approved during Koelmel's first day on the job was the transfer of $15 million from the authority's bank account to the state's general fund; the authority's finances have long been a traditional source of income grabbed by governors to help balance the state's budget.

Cuomo last month nominated Koelmel, who has become one of the Cuomo administration's go-to advisers on Western New York economic matters, and recommended that the authority trustees back his selection as chairman to replace Michael Townsend, a Monroe County resident appointed to the board eight years ago by then-Gov. George Pataki.

Koelmel takes over the board at an important period in the agency's history.

The state is considering a major expansion of the state's ability to generate and transmit electricity, including how to end worsening bottlenecks in the power transmission system that keep upstate energy producers, including plants in the Buffalo area, from getting enough electricity to power-hungry downstate communities.

The agency is overseeing Cuomo's push for an "energy highway" to upgrade the state's aging power infrastructure system.

The power authority recently received plans from potential private investors, power companies and others for 125 individual projects that, combined, would create more than 20,000 megawatts of power, officials said Tuesday.

Koelmel, 59, an East Amherst resident, will not take any compensation for the new position; Townsend had been making $90,000 annually as power authority chairman.

Koelmel's day job keeps him busy; an accountant by trade, he heads one of upstate's largest bank corporations that has been expanding operations upstate and into Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

First Niagara also acquired HSBC branches and bought the naming rights to the hockey arena in downtown Buffalo.

Koelmel is also chairman of the board at Kaleida Health and has been a member of Cuomo's regional economic development council charged with devising how to spend tens of millions of dollars in state money and tax breaks.