Preston finance board member objects to Norwich Hospital plan

Preston - A Board of Finance member opposed to a proposed $8 million borrowing plan to continue cleanup of the former Norwich Hospital property cried foul Thursday against plans by the Preston Redevelopment Agency to give presentations about the proposal prior to an upcoming town meeting and referendum.

Norman Gauthier complained to the selectmen Thursday that the PRA presentation would be biased in favor of the loan package and would be illegal under a state statute that prohibits using town funds or resources to promote one side of a referendum question.

Gauthier's objections caused the PRA to postpone scheduling any informational meetings to explain the loan package and how the money would be spent. The agency in charge of the hospital cleanup had planned at least two informational meetings prior to next Thursday's town meeting, and perhaps more, before the Nov. 27 referendum.

PRA Chairman Sean Nugent "denounced" Gauthier's claims and accused him of presenting his opinions as facts in an effort to kill the loan proposal. Gauthier was one of two finance board members who voted Tuesday night not to send the loan proposal to voters for consideration.

Nugent said Gauthier is biased against the PRA, saying at one point he called its members "bobbleheads."

On Tuesday, the finance board wrangled with wording and disputed finances and possible future plans for the hospital property for an hour before reluctantly agreeing to send the matter to voters. Gauthier and member Andrew Bilodeau voted against the resolution.

The loan package includes approving a low-cost $4 million state loan and bonding the town's required $4 million match. If approved by voters, that match also would allow the town to obtain a $964,000 federal grant for the cleanup. Combined, the funds would complete environmental cleanup and demolition on all but about five to 10 buildings on the former state mental hospital campus.

First Selectman Robert Congdon said he forwarded Gauthier's objections to the town's law firm, Halloran & Sage, for a legal opinion on whether the informational meetings can be held.

Congdon said it would be irresponsible of the town to put an $8 million borrowing question before the voters without an explanation of how the money would be spent and the financial impact the loan would have on the town.

He also said residents should have a chance to learn the progress the volunteer PRA has made to date in obtaining grants to clean and demolish buildings at the former state hospital.

Congdon said anyone else also should be allowed to make presentations on an alternative "path forward" for dealing with the hospital cleanup, if they have such proposals.

c.bessette@theday.com

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