There’s really not much new regarding the Keene City Council’s vote to take the former Kingsbury Corp. property for lack of tax payments. The issue has been debated for several years now, and Thursday’s lengthy discussion on the matter really amounted to a rehashing of oft-stated arguments. But the result may be costly.
The issue arose late in the meeting, and was not on the meeting agenda. It was prompted by an update from City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, who gave the site’s history and noted federal funding to assess and clean up contamination on the 22 acres may be in jeopardy. Still, the topic clearly was not a surprise to the councilors. Several had their arguments well-prepared. Councilor Janis Manwaring had a motion to take the property pre-written, and Mayor Kendall Lane was ready to pull the item from a subcommittee to be dealt with immediately.
The property on Laurel Street has sat vacant since the company shut down. It was bought by Manchester businessman Brian Thibeault for $50,000 at foreclosure in 2013, though that attractive price came with a caveat: several years of back taxes were owed to the city, a debt Thibeault inherited with the purchase. He allowed that debt to mount for a few years, as interest and penalties accrued. Then he started paying some tax bills, but not the inherited debt and penalties.
Since then, he’s played a game of chicken with the city, several times promising action on which he hasn’t delivered, either to pay what’s owed or to begin development there. Besides the commercial possibilities, part of the site is planned for an extension of Victoria Road, to ease Water Street traffic. Another part, along the brook, could be used to ease flooding in the east side. In any case, the deteriorating building is both an eyesore and a safety hazard, and needs to come down.
Because of the unknown extent of contamination, and the proximity to Beaver Brook, the site is both a headache and an intriguing development opportunity to the city. But in recent years, the city has tried to gauge the pollution to figure out whether it’s worth taking possession of the land. Thibeault hasn’t helped much in this regard, refusing to allow parts of the site to be tested for the extent of contamination.
The debate Thursday broached no new ground. On one side, councilors noted Thibeault has not been very cooperative, and said the city must at some point take action, both out of fairness to other property taxpayers and to advance redevelopment efforts. Though several said they were not just acting out of frustration with Thibeault, it’s hard to take those contentions at face value when accompanied by quotes such as: “He’s playing us,” “It’s lie after lie after lie,” or “This owner is not acting in good faith.”
Thibeault’s actions — and inaction — have surely pushed the councilors to the brink.
Or perhaps past it.
As City Attorney Thomas Mullins made clear, the 12-2 vote taken by the council Thursday started a legal process by which Thibeault has 30 days to pay all of what he owes the city — which Dragon put at $903,776. If all of that is not paid, the city takes ownership of the site, pollution and all. While Councilor Mitch Greenwald argued the move “would show the property owner we’re serious,” it is not a negotiating maneuver. There is no way to backtrack now, Mullins noted.
While Councilors Robert Sutherland and George Hansel, who opposed the action, argued there’s no need to rush into an irreversible decision now, others countered it’s not a spur-of-the-moment act; they’ve been having the same debate for several years.
“It’s like ‘Groundhog Day,’ quipped Randy Filiault. “He’s never going to pay the back taxes.”
Sutherland noted it took the city decades to clean up and develop the former Boston and Maine Railroad land after taking it for taxes. Dave Richards and Terry Clark countered that while true, the city’s move in that case was necessary and the land might not have ever gotten redeveloped without such action.
Richards also noted it’s unfair to other taxpayers to allow Thibeault to keep pushing off his debt, or to negotiate forgiveness because he has leverage.
But as Mullins stated, in taking the land, the city becomes liable for it. And while some safe harbor statutes protect against the cost of cleanup of the site itself, the cost of dealing with damage due to any “migrating” pollution on adjacent property is another matter.
Thus, the council’s vote may be fair to taxpayers, but if Thibeault doesn’t suddenly pay up, it could also cost those taxpayers dearly. And that the councilors don’t know which will be the case is a good argument for having had the patience to keep negotiating.