Poquonnock Bridge Fire District struggles to reduce costs

Groton - With a budget due for a districtwide vote in May, some members of the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District Board of Directors continued their calls Thursday for major cuts to bring taxes in line with those in other districts.

From where those budget reductions will come, however, remains the question.

"It's like government - it's pretty out of control. Without cuts, we'll go bankrupt," said board member Ron Yuhas. "We're looking at the big picture. We have to do something. How much can you take from the taxpayer?"

Yuhas said he's paying $1,100 in fire district taxes, as much as someone with a $1 million home in another part of town.

Yuhas' remarks followed a report from Brian Rolfe, an auditor who said the district needs to put away $1 million a year to keep up with the cost of post-employment benefits, or "it's not going to take long for the district to be pretty insolvent."

Poquonnock Bridge, with the town's only fully paid staff and most active fire department, has the largest fire district tax, at 5.9 mills and a $4.6 million budget. It is one of nine districts in town.

The board has already taken a step to eliminate funding for public education and is considering removal of a districtwide fire alarm system that board member Alan Ackley said is antiquated and costs the district as much as $100,000 a year to maintain.

No vote was taken on the alarm system measure Thursday, but Poquonnock Bridge Fire Chief Todd Paige said it would take two years and cost $182,000 to remove the system, which he called "well-maintained and very reliable."

The system, paid for in part with funding from three other departments, runs 30 miles and includes 263 alarms, including 131 street pull-box alarms, Paige said.

Meanwhile, the district is still trying to figure out what to do with a stationary ladder truck that was pulled from service in 2011 when it failed a maintenance inspection. The district has declined to pay the $4,500 cost it would take to get an estimate on the cost for repairs.

The city fire department had been responding automatically to all calls with their ladder until last month, when City Mayor Marian Galbraith said the city could no longer afford to assume the costs. The city has asked for an initial payment of $57,000.

A mutual aid agreement remains in place.

Galbraith attended Thursday's meeting and said the city remains open to an agreement in which the district pays for maintenance and capital costs associated with the use of the ladder. Board President Chris Clark said he planned to speak with Galbraith at a later date.

Groton resident Christine Conley told the board that living in a third-story apartment now has her nervous, wondering if the department carried ladders "long enough to reach me."

Salaries for firefighters also remains an issue. The nine-member board's vote to rescind a 10-year contract with the firefighters union, voted on by the board when it was still five members, is the source of a union grievance.

g.smith@theday.com

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