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Groton fire district squabble 'just a mess'

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published June 24. 2013 4:00AM   Updated June 24. 2013 11:44PM
Board weighs closing Fort Hill Station, starting new force

Groton - The relationship between the volunteer company that owns the Fort Hill Station in Poquonnock Bridge and the fire district board has deteriorated to the point that the board is considering closing the station, moving all career firefighters across town, and starting a new volunteer force.

Poquonnock Bridge Volunteer Fire Co. No. 1, Inc., which owns the Fort Hill Station and leases it to the district, met Thursday night and voted unanimously to not accept applications for any new volunteers until a committee discusses the issue with the chief, according to a statement released by Fire Company Vice President John Parfitt Jr.

The statement, issued on behalf of the company, also said volunteer members who were active and served until 2010 should be retrained before new ones are brought in, and that volunteers should not be used to replace career firefighters.

Alan Ackley, incoming president of the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District, said the volunteer company does not have as much power as it thinks. He said the board would proceed with volunteers whether the company likes it or not.

"They think they hold all the cards and they don't," he said.

Ackley said the board could opt to close the Fort Hill Fire Station at 13 Fort Hill Road - which would require a majority vote of the board - relocate career firefighters to the second station on Long Hill Road and start a new volunteer company in Poquonnock Bridge. Ackley said the board might close the Fort Hill station regardless of the volunteer issue to save money on daily operations.

Voters approved a budget of $3.5 million for the fire district for the year starting July 1, about half of what the board had sought, and not enough to cover its payroll. Taxpayers also elected three new members.

Deb Monteiro, one newly-elected member, said the board is making things worse by rushing decisions, talking about closing a fire station and effectively telling firefighters, "if they don't play ball, their jobs are in jeopardy."

She said she's concerned about potential layoffs and the impact on public safety. The two stations in Poquonnock Bridge are at opposite ends of a large district, she added.

"The (Long Hill) location, it's about as far removed from Fitch Senior High as you can get," she said.

Ron Yuhas, a fire district board member recently re-elected, said he spoke to Deputy Chief Curt Floyd this week and was told the fire district doesn't put aside money for unemployment insurance but is on a "pay as you go plan" if it lays off firefighters.

Given this, Yuhas said the district would have to cover the unemployment costs. Chief Todd Paige was on vacation and Floyd could not be reached for comment.

Yuhas said issues regarding the Fort Hill Station, establishing a volunteer force and the costs and benefits of potential layoffs would be discussed after the new board takes office July 1.

He said comments about risking public safety are scare tactics.

"Is easy to say, 'We need, we need, we need'," Yuhas said. "But there's only so much you can spend. We have $3.5 million. And we're going to have to try to work it out."

Monteiro said the board continues to make matters worse, by making poor decisions.

"And they're talking about major layoffs," she said.

Monteiro said the state would expect the district to meet its obligation and pay unemployment costs.

"I mean, it's just a mess," she said.

Town Mayor Heather Bond Somers said the council's public safety committee is watching closley what happens in the fire district.

"But until they ask for support we probably should let things run their course because they are their own autonomous entity," she said.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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