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Groton residents seek state's help with fire district

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published 07/10/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 07/10/2013 12:17 AM
Poquonnock Bridge woes raise specter of bankruptcy, public safety issues

Groton - Taxpayers worried about potential bankruptcy of the troubled Poquonnock Bridge Fire District, as well as public safety, are turning to the state for assistance.

Town officials have meanwhile asked the town attorney for an opinion on what the town's responsibility is to its residents and what authority it has in the matter, if any. Fire districts are independent entities.

Nicki Bresnyan, whose father lives in Poquonnock Bridge and whose sister, Deb Monteiro, was elected in May to the fire district board, mailed a letter Monday to Attorney General George Jepsen asking him about the "legality" of the fire district board's conduct and "the personal liability of certain Fire District Board members given their wanton disregard for their fiscal responsibilities and health and safety of the fire district."

The district board had sought approval of a $6.29 million budget for the coming fiscal year, but taxpayers ultimately approved a $3.5 million budget instead, not enough to cover payroll. Under that budget, the tax rate would fall from 5.9 mills last year to 5 mills this year. Groton has nine independent fire districts and Poquonnock Bridge has the highest tax rate of the nine.

Fire District Board President Alan Ackley said the board is not trying to bankrupt the district and fire protection would be provided.

He said the budget for Poquonnock Bridge is up to the taxpayers, not the board.

"If the public feels they're paying too much for service, then they have all the right in the world to lower what they want to pay," Ackley said.

He said he does not believe board members can be held personally liable for anything that happens.

The July 6 letter to the attorney general said it represents the views of a group of district taxpayers who are "being frustrated at every turn by the board's seeming ability to move forward with their personal agenda unimpeded."

The letter adds: "Please help us."

Bresnyan said she believes the district board is headed toward bankruptcy, and the debt will ultimately be shouldered by taxpayers. "If there is an entity out there that can intervene, we are asking for their help," she said.

The letter addressed to Jepsen was also sent Tuesday to state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington; Rep. Edward Moukawsher; Rep. Elissa Wright; Benjamin Barnes, the secretary of the state Office of Policy and Management; W. David LeVasseur, acting undersecretary of the intergovernmental policy division in OPM; and Bill Plummer, also in the intergovernmental policy division.

The newly elected fire district board, which includes three new members and six incumbent members, meets for the first time at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Fort Hill station at 13 Fort Hill Road.

Town Manager Mark Oefinger said he has asked the town attorney "what the community's options are" if the fire district board fails to deal with its financial troubles or closes its doors. Oefinger said the town is concerned because Poquonnock Bridge is the largest fire district in Groton, the town owns a lot of property in the district and its troubles could affect surrounding fire districts.

Town Mayor Heather Somers said she recently asked Oefinger to make the inquiry to define the town's obligations, responsibility and authority if something changes within the fire district. Somers said the town can't insert itself into the fire district debate but must be concerned with the safety of its residents, so it needs this information.

Ackley said he doesn't believe the town has any authority over the fire district unless there is no protection provided.

Wright said she has not been asked to intervene in the district but has been following what's been happening. She said she would first want to determine if public safety is compromised or the fiscal stability of the district is in jeopardy.

Moukawsher said the state generally does not interfere with local governance, but the issues in Poquonnock Bridge highlight the problems with having a fire district system that gives authority to individual districts to tax residents and provide fire protection.

Moukawsher said he was shocked by how high the fire district taxes are, but believes relying on a budget of $3.5 million is like "starving the district." He said he's not been asked to intervene and believes the state would want to know first what the town has done.

The letter outlines numerous problems, including the board's delinquency on paying fire hydrant rentals, the lack of a working ladder truck, the lack of a budget and "chaos" at the meeting during which the budget was approved and board members elected.

Ackley said payments for the fire hydrants are up to date. He said the board chose not to pay them earlier because its lawyer believed the fees charged per hydrant were excessive. Ackley said the board opted not to pay to challenge those fees.

He said fire protection would never be an issue in Poquonnock Bridge, because Groton has nine fire districts.

"We provide mutual aid and so do they, to us," Ackley said. "Even if we weren't here, which is not going to be the case, that service would be provided."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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