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Groton fire district board considering bankruptcy filing

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published 08/08/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 08/08/2013 12:21 AM
But Poquonnock Bridge president says board still unsure of its legal options

Groton - Board members are actively considering bankruptcy for the financially troubled Poquonnock Bridge Fire District, District Board President Alan Ackley said Wednesday.

"Every district member understands that bankruptcy is in the offing unless something else happens," he said. "It's pretty cut and dried. If you don't have the money, you don't have the money."

Ackley said the board doesn't know yet what its legal options are when it comes to taking action to save money.

In the meantime, a decision that could make matters more urgent is due at any time. The board of directors and the Poquonnock Bridge Professional Firefighters Union expect to hear this month from an arbitrator on whether the district must honor a 10-year contract ratified in 2012. Ackley said he's not sure of the exact cost of the new contract, but it adds a few hundred thousand a year annually.

Board member Ron Yuhas said, "It's certainly going to bring us closer to bankruptcy if we have to honor that 10-year contract."

The board is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Thursday in the 13 Fort Hill Road station.

"Unless the union wants to sit down and talk, we're already bankrupt," Ackley said. "You can't operate with $3.5 million when the contract calls for $4.2 million."

Personnel costs, including salaries, pensions, insurance and other items, currently total about $4.2 million. Voters approved a budget of $3.5 million for the fiscal year that began July 1 after rejecting higher amounts.

The board had sought to re-enter negotiations by Monday, but the union declined.

Under state law, municipalities including fire districts may not declare bankruptcy without the written consent of the governor.

Board member Peter Legnos estimated last month that the district would run out of money in February without further cuts.

In the meantime, the board is looking at how it might stretch the money until the end of the fiscal year. Options include closing one of its two fire stations - Fort Hill - and, in the longer term, moving toward a combination career and volunteer firefighting force.

Ackley said he has 11 people trained and willing to volunteer. But four fire chiefs in Groton who run volunteer departments or combined departments said it would take at least a year to establish a volunteer force.

Fire chiefs from Old Mystic, Groton City, Noank and Center Groton agreed a year is the minimum.

Kenneth Richards Jr., longtime chief of the Old Mystic Fire Department, said he believes it would take between one and two years. Richards said volunteers must be held to the same standard as career firefighters and must be treated as equals.

He said the board, fire administrators, the union and the firefighters must agree or "it's going to fail."

Richards, whose son recently was elected to the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District board, is speaking next week on recruitment and retention at the International Association of Fire Chiefs' conference in Chicago.

"I really don't think some of the people that are proposing these things are looking at the big picture," he said. "The big picture is being able to provide proper emergency services to the taxpayers of the community. And that is the most important thing."

Center Groton Fire Chief Derek Fauntleroy said, "You can't just take anybody off the street and put them in fire gear and expect them to perform."

Richards and Groton City Fire Chief Nick DeLia said issues in Poquonnock Bridge also could affect surrounding districts.

DeLia, a former career firefighter for Poquonnock Bridge, said the city sent its ladder truck to assit Poquonnock Bridge for two years but didn't receive help maintaining the truck.

"It does impact the neighboring communities," DeLia said of financial problems in Poquonnock Bridge. "Particularly if you start laying people off."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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