Published June 13. 2014 4:00AM
Groton — The Poquonnock Bridge Fire District would have to default on its $415,000 payment to the town's pension plan and lay off nine firefighters to run the department with the money it has, Chief Todd Paige told the fire district board Thursday.
Taxpayers approved a budget of $3.9 million for the coming fiscal year at the fire district's annual meeting on May 29 - $700,000 less than the district has now.
Nine firefighters represent about one-third of the total firefighting staff.
But Paige said layoffs wouldn't actually save money, because the department would have to pay unemployment and overtime to meet minimum staffing requirements. The union contract calls for a minimum of five firefighters in Poquonnock Bridge per shift.
If the district ignored the minimum, the union would likely file a grievance, Paige said.
"They will probably prevail, so I don't really have a real solution," he said.
The board didn't make a decision Thursday. It said it would have two board members meet with the chief and return with a recommendation to be voted on at a special meeting at 6 p.m. on June 19 in the Groton Senior Center. The board set the tax rate at 5.9 mills based on the budget approved by voters.
About 30 people, including firefighters and their spouses, along with prospective volunteer firefighters who might take their places, listened in a classroom in the senior center as the board discussed potential layoffs.
A swing band practiced in the next, the horn section sometimes overpowering the discussion.
At one point, board member Peter Legnos leaned over and told board president Alan Ackley, "I think we should just work among ourselves and come up with a number. I don't think the chief wants to do this."
The board voted to give firefighters a minimum of 30 days' notice before initiating layoffs.
"Oh, that's very nice," one firefighter muttered to himself. "Just pull the trigger, thank you."
Board member Kenneth Richards III, who was voted off the board at the meeting in May and attended his last meeting Thursday, said the district should talk to surrounding fire departments.
"We need to make sure that our people are safe regardless of what happens," he said.
Board members said those discussions had already started or were being arranged.