Preston — In three consecutive tense meetings with heated debates in the aftermath of Tuesday's referendum defeat of an $8 million loan package for the Norwich Hospital cleanup, town officials decided Thursday to try a long-shot plan to cut the loan package in half and try again to win both voter and state and federal agencies' approval.
Voters on Tuesday rejected a $4 million state loan with a $4 million town match by a vote of 319 to 261. That offer expires Dec. 31.
The Preston Redevelopment Agency, Board of Finance and Board of Selectmen met in succession Thursday and after heated discussions agreed to propose that the town ask the state Department of Economic and Community Development to reduce the low-cost state loan offer to $2 million, with a $2 million town match.
And town officials will try to negotiate a last-minute extension from the federal Economic Development Administration on a $964,000 federal grant the town is slated to lose by Saturday because residents did not approve the loan package. The rejected loan would have served as the match.
The Board of Selectmen scheduled a town meeting on the new $4 million loan package for Dec. 6 and a referendum for Dec. 18.
In contrast to the $8 million plan, the Board of Finance Thursday unanimously approved the new loan package and added language to say the board "endorses" the plan.
First Selectman Robert Congdon said although the time schedule is tight, the town should stick with the current deadlines in the hopes that the DECD would agree to the change in terms.
If the EDA denies the extension, Town Planner Kathy Warzecha said, the town could apply again for an EDA grant at the end of March, using the new $4 million loan package as the match, if the new loan package is approved by voters.
PRA Chairman Sean Nugent said the entire proposal has "a lot of contingencies here," but it was worth a try to continue cleanup efforts at the former Norwich Hospital property.
After the Board of Finance endorsed the plan unanimously, Nugent said he would send an email to DECD officials Thursday night, along with messages to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, to ask for assistance in obtaining an extension of the EDA grant.
Town officials hope to learn about an EDA extension by Monday.
Selectman Timothy Bowles, the newly elected 42nd District state representative, pledged to work with state officials in efforts to move the cleanup project forward.
A shift in attitude
The new $4 million loan proposal represented a sharp and quick shift in attitude from the start of Thursday's meetings to the end two hours later.
Nugent said when he walked out of Town Hall Tuesday night, he had a letter of resignation written in his head to quit the PRA and give up trying to get the 393-acre property cleaned and redeveloped.
But he allowed "my Irish to calm down," and came to Thursday's meeting with a determination to continue cleanup efforts and launch an "aggressive" marketing campaign to find developers. In a roundtable discussion, each member of the PRA started the meeting with the sentiment to finish using up the current federal Environmental Protection Agency grants — expected to be spent by March — and close down all operations.
Some said they would turn the entire funding effort over to the Board of Finance. Four members of that board — Jerry Grabarek, Norman Gauthier, Andrew Bilodeau and Ken Zachem — campaigned strongly against the $8 million loan package in the days prior to the vote, a campaign that loan supporters called inappropriate and perhaps illegal.
Their actions led chairman and project supporter Robert Maurice to resign from the board immediately on Tuesday.
But Nugent said he objected to turning over hospital property funding to the finance board, calling its members "incompetent."
Later at the finance board meeting, member Gail Whitney read a one-page written statement into the record objecting to the four members' actions, saying she was "disturbed" by newspaper opinion articles the four published without knowledge of the rest of the board. Grabarek campaigned against the loan package at the town landfill, and Gauthier distributed a flier that recommended residents "Vote NOvember 27" on the proposal.
"As a (Board of Finance) member, I was never given an opportunity to vote for or against the letters that were published in the newspaper or letters that were distributed around town," Whitney read into the record. "In addition, I feel I have been discriminated against by four members of the BOF by excluding me from meetings and as the only woman member of the board. In my opinion, the four members of the BOF have acted unprofessionally and have put their own interests in front of the townspeople."
During the Board of Selectmen meeting, Congdon said he forwarded news stories and the negative campaign flier to the town's law firm for review, and attorneys advised that both state Freedom of Information and state Elections Enforcement laws might have been violated.
PRA member William Legler said he plans to file complaints with both agencies.
Congdon said he will invite officials from both state agencies to review actions of all three town agencies involved in the referendum — the boards of finance and selectmen and the PRA — and meet with town officials to discuss state laws and provisions.
"It's been an ugly couple of weeks," Congdon said.
After the meetings, Gauthier said town officials are objecting to the newspaper articles and fliers only because they expressed opposing opinions.
"If the newspaper articles and letters had supported their opinions, they would not have complained," Gauthier said.