Philbrick asks: Is Redding responsible for Wire Mill debt?

Tensions ran high Sunday night at a special presentation on the Gilbert & Bennett Wire Mill development hosted by local artist Jane Philbrick, during which she questioned the transparency of legal proceedings related to the project.

At one point during the event, Philbrick’s presentation was interrupted by First Selectman Julia Pemberton, who called aspects of the information being provided “distortions… at a minimum.”

Overall, the evening featured a 90 minute presentation at the Redding Community Center by Philbrick — who presented her Harvard Design School master thesis on the Gilbert & Bennett site earlier this year. The event was produced as a vehicle to facilitate a community-involved discussion about the long-defunct wire mill site, which has been delayed in construction since 2008.

In 2015, the town began foreclosure proceedings against the Georgetown Land Development Company, the corporation created to develop the site into a viable business in a Special Taxing District in Redding.

Philbrick showed particular dismay at what she characterized as a lack of transparency in the proceedings surrounding the creation of a special tax district to mitigate the cost of the wire mill development. Both the Special Taxing District and the Georgetown Land Development Company owe the town millions in unpaid taxes.

Chief among the concerns Philbrick expressed was whether the town (and taxpayers) could be held liable for the debts of the Special Taxing District.

Citing a singular Connecticut statute, section 7-329, Philbrick contends that the taxpayers of Redding could possibly inherit the debt of the special tax district for the Gilbert & Bennet property.

The relevant section of statute 7-329 states that “No district shall be terminated under this section until all of its outstanding indebtedness is paid unless the legislative body of the town in which the district is located agrees in writing to assume such indebtedness.”

Philbrick raised her concerns over the same statute in a letter to the editor of the Pilot, published the Thursday before her presentation at the Redding Community Center.

First Selectman Julia Pemberton, however, says the town is not responsible for any debts owed by the taxing district at this time.

“The town of Redding is not currently responsible for the debt in the taxing district,” she stated, after being pressed about the issue by an audience member.

Midway through her presentation, Philbrick alluded that Reddingites had let a “Fox in the henhouse,” by allowing the state to create the special tax district in town.

“I think we need to get the foxes out of the henhouse,” Philbrick said during the presentation, “...and it’s not that I want to kill the foxes, I just would like them not to eat our hens.”

Philbrick’s presentation at one point drew an interruption from Pemberton, who claimed Philbrick had made “distortions... at a minimum” about whether Redding voters would get a say in the financial plan for the foreclosed property.

Philbrick fired back, claiming “I am not a financier, I am not a lawyer — I am a responsible citizen… and I have questions which are not distortions.”

Pemberton responded that she “did make a statement, as a result of a question at [Philbrick’s] last forum, indicating we would not be doing anything without a vote of the town, and a full review of all the options.”

The interruption came after Philbrick suggested that Redding voters are being left in the dark about the legal proceedings surrounding the foreclosure of the Gilbert and Bennett property. “Why are we being remonstrated with, ‘I can’t tell you’?” Philbrick asked, shortly before Pemberton’s interjection. “Who pays your salary? Who pays the taxes? Who is ultimately responsible?”

After the meeting

Pemberton later clarified her remarks after the presentation, saying that “when we really embarked on the foreclosure [of Gilbert and Bennett]… I was aware that every time I was in a room speaking publicly that there are parties from the other side.”

She went on to acknowledge Philbrick’s frustration at having information about the proceedings come to the voters only through the Board of Selectmen, saying “it is hard to be muzzled by the legal process… it is hard sometimes not to speak as openly, because you don’t want to give away information to your legal opponents. And that is again why we don’t speak oftentimes of the legal details and the minutiae of what we are trying to accomplish for the town… and yes, it does ask a certain level of trust from the voters.”

She also offered praise for Philbrick’s suggested plans for the historic buildings of Gilbert and Bennett, calling her proposal “absolutely marvelous works.”

Pemberton said that she “welcomes an open dialogue” about the Gilbert & Bennett site, and that “anybody who is in litigation doesn’t want to discuss details openly that might benefit their opposition.”

She went on to say that the town is being “...well-represented by Adam Cohen” (an attorney at Pullman Comley, who are handling the foreclosure), and that the recent decision by a bankruptcy judge to ensure the town is paid first for the back taxes owed on the property before all other interested parties is “A victory for the town.”

That may not suffice for Jane Philbrick, who wrapped up her presentation by stating “the last fifteen years [of the Gilbert and Bennett project] have been a catastrophe,” and noted in an email to community members following the meeting that she has concerns with the effectiveness of the counsel retained by the Town of Redding — Pullman & Comley.

In the letter, Philbrick quotes a passage from the law firm’s website — “Pullman & Comley, LLC is the “go to” firm for brownfield redevelopment in Connecticut.  We understand it, we helped write the laws that govern it, and we help clients put the redevelopment of brownfields into practice — before questioning it.

“With such soup-to-nuts expertise [expressed by the town’s] counsel,” she wrote, “why [has] the Georgetown project has been such a debacle, with millions of dollars of public funding unaccounted for? This confusion prompted the presentation of findings yesterday for community review and consideration.”

For her own part, Pemberton claims to be open to dialogue about the protracted case of the wire mill property.

“We ran for office on the promise of transparency,” she reminded the Redding residents in attendance. “I love to talk about Gilbert and Bennett.”

The Town of Redding will make a presentation, with its counsel present, on the topic of the Gilbert & Bennett Wire Mill foreclosure proceedings on Monday, May 15 at 7:30 p.m. at the Redding Community Center.