Preston's role in former Norwich Hospital site could be in jeopardy

Preston — Last week's narrow vote by the Board of Finance to authorize selectmen to go ahead with a town meeting and referendum on an $8 million loan package for the former Norwich Hospital cleanup was not good enough.

On this day, when attention will gravitate toward national, state and regional legislative elections, the Board of Finance will hold a special meeting at 7 p.m. at Town Hall effectively to decide whether the town's cleanup of the former Norwich Hospital property should continue.

A vote against the recommendation would kill future cleanup efforts of the town's 393-acre portion of the hospital property once current grants are used up in a few months, town officials said.

First Selectman Robert Congdon, a strong supporter of the hospital cleanup efforts, called tonight's meeting "an issue of major importance" to the town that is left in the hands of the six-member board.

"If they vote 'no' tomorrow, my guess is there will be a lot of angry people in town who will say no three people should be the ones to decide an issue of this importance for the entire town," he said.

The loan package includes a low-cost $4 million state loan and bonding the town's required $4 million match that also would allow the town to obtain a $964,000 federal grant for the cleanup.

The six-member Board of Finance does not support the spending, and last Thursday voted 5-1 against "recommending" that selectmen schedule the town meeting and referendum. A change in wording to "authorize" — without an implied endorsement — the Board of Selectmen to schedule the town meeting and vote passed 4-2.

Two attorneys from the town's law firm Halloran & Sage said the wording was not good enough to meet state statutes that require boards of finance recommend financial expenditures of over $20,000 go to town meeting and referendum.

The town is up against a Dec. 1 deadline to accept the terms of the state loan, and with required advanced time to advertise the town meeting and referendum, the special Board of Finance meeting had to be schedule immediately, Congdon said.

Board of Finance Chairman Robert Maurice, the lone yes vote in the first vote last week, said he could not predict the outcome of tonight's meeting. He spent Monday afternoon trying to ensure there is a quorum tonight. Two members, Jerry Grabarek and Andy Bilodeau, voted against the measure in the second vote. One more no vote would deadlock and kill the resolution, he said.

"They feel that says they're in favor," Maurice said of the initial wording. "The townspeople should have a say. They should have the chance to vote. They're the ones footing the bill, not six of us."

Congdon said if the Board of Finance — or voters if the referendum goes forward — reject the loan package, he would predict that Preston would have a difficult time in the future obtaining any state or federal grants or loans for town projects.

As for the hospital property, the town's demolition contractor, Manafort Bros. now secures the site and owns the current temporary security fence. The firm would vacate the site if the cleanup work ends, and the town would have to take over security, erect a new and stronger fence and maintain it, Congdon said.

He estimated the town's annual cost "to do nothing" at more than $200,000 a year — higher than the $165,000 the Preston Redevelopment Agency estimated last week. Congdon said that figure did not include buying and installing a new fence and security system.

Grabarek said Monday he remains against the loan package, partly because the $8 million would not "finish the job," and the PRA would be looking for another $8 million or $10 million in the future to complete the cleanup. Currently there are no developers at the table, only two firms considering purchasing parcels there.

Grabarek was against the town taking ownership of the property four years ago, and said he feels the wording in today's resolution would amount to an approval of the expenditure.

"That would make it sound like we're recommending it, and I'm not recommending it," Grabarek said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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