Published July 07. 2014 4:00AM
Groton - The town may soon be asked to consider whether the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District carries an unfair share of the cost of fire protection, and some councilors are already expressing different views.
Ron Yuhas, a member of the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District Board, said last week it's unfair to tax the working-class neighborhoods of Poquonnock Bridge to pay for fire protection of tax-exempt properties and town-owned land.
"The district that's carrying the load is getting funded by the poorest people," Yuhas said.
Town Councilor Rich Moravsik said he believes tax fairness is a legitimate concern and the council should discuss it.
"Everybody sends their children to the (high) school," he said. "We all use the police department services, all the people in the town. And why should Poquonnock Bridge be the one that has to be the supplier of fire service for that particular area?"
But Mayor Rita Schmidt said the fire districts are independent and the town has had no say in decisions like the disputed contract negotiated with firefighters. The union and district board are awaiting a court decision.
"If they get into trouble, does the rest of the town bail them out?" Schmidt said of the fire district. "Everyone is very up in arms about taxes, and if the town mill rate goes up in order to cover them, they're still going to be paying more taxes."
Poquonnock Bridge is the largest fire district in Groton, covering an area with 12,000 people, the commercial strip on Route 1 and most town-owned property. About 56.2 percent of town-owned property is in Poquonnock Bridge, according to Town Assessor Mary Gardner. The district with the second most is Groton City, with 11.9 percent.
On June 19, the Poquonnock Bridge fire district board laid off nine firefighters, effective July 25. The department also has four vacancies that would remain unfilled, raising the staff cuts to almost 42 percent of the department. Board members said they had no choice but to cut because voters approved a budget that was $700,000 less than the previous year.
Poquonnock Bridge receives about $154,000 from the town as payment in lieu of taxes for town-owned property, and has received the same amount for years.
Moravsik said he believes the town should consider taking over fire protection for a portion of Route 1, and having each district contribute because all benefit from commercial property. Groton should also review how it distributes payments for fire protection of town-owned property, Moravsik said.
"I think it evolved over time, and fairness was just kind of pushed aside," he said. "Because the other districts didn't realize that they had to kick in, and so Poquonnock Bridge all of the sudden had to fill their responsibilities with paid firemen. Then firefighters required benefits and retirements, and costs got out of hand, Moravsik said.
Yuhas plans to raise the issue of tax-exempt property at an upcoming Town Council meeting. He doesn't expect additional money this year and taxpayers don't want more spending, he said. But in the future, he believes Groton should collect taxes from everyone for fire protection of tax-exempt property, and divide the money proportionally. The districts themselves could remain independent, Yuhas said.
"Everybody's going to have to think about it. And no one wants to think about it," he said. "But everybody's going to have to think about it because that's the only way we're going to survive."
Fire District Board President Alan Ackley sent a letter June 26 to area fire district presidents and chiefs saying the district would need temporary help from other departments. Ackley said voters mandated at the annual meeting that Poquonnock Bridge cut spending and recruit volunteer firefighters.
"To ensure the public's safety while this plan of action proceeds, we will be relying on more frequent mutual aid assistance from your organization," Ackley wrote. "This assistance is not permanent but temporary until such time that our plan can be fully implemented."
A board member from Poquonnock Bridge would schedule meetings shortly with other district boards to discuss details, he wrote.
Chiefs in fire districts surrounding Poquonnock Bridge said layoffs in that department would strain other departments and could affect neighboring towns, because fire departments rely on one another for backup and may have to call in help from farther away.
Councilor Bruce Flax said since fire districts are independent, he'd be inclined right now to leave it up to the chiefs to try to work it out.
But he said, "If they came to the town seeking help, I would want to help them in any way we can."