Amid turmoil, Groton fire district board OKs contract

Groton - The Poquonnock Bridge Fire District has a new union contract that increases the salary for an entry-level firefighter by more than $17,000 over the next decade and gives the fire marshal a raise of nearly $25,000 during that period.

The contract was approved during a period of turmoil for the district's board of directors. The president and vice president, who both say they see a need for major changes in district operations, were ousted in May. Voters petitioned for a meeting to expand the board so the two officers could return, but not before the new president struck the deal with the union.

The board was expanded by four members at its Aug. 1 meeting.

The sole board member who opposed the contract has questioned whether the vote on it was legal, and the board is now seeking a ruling from the state Freedom of Information Commission.

Under the contract, retirees and their survivors now get cost-of-living adjustments, an automatic annual 3 percent increase in their retirement payments. Previously, the district could approve an adjustment, but nothing was guaranteed.

The union president, Kale Kiely, is now a deputy fire marshal instead of a fire inspector and will receive close to $3,000 more in pay. The position of lieutenant also was added. Among a multitude of other changes, union members now will be paid more during certain training courses and will get additional days off. Six people will staff each shift instead of five.

Christopher Clark, the new district president, described the salary increases as "very slight" and said he believes the district can afford them. He said he is looking at other ways to rein in costs, from working with Groton Utilities to lower hydrant rental fees to switching to a new health insurance agent and workers' compensation carrier.

"I wouldn't say it was a pro-union contract because there were a lot of negotiations and a lot of give-and-take on both sides. I think it's a fair contract," Clark said Tuesday, noting that the staffing increase will enhance safety.

At 5.9 mills, Poquonnock Bridge has the highest tax rate of the nine fire districts in Groton. The next highest is the City of Groton at 4.595 mills, followed by Center Groton at 3.5 mills.

The contract's fiscal impact on the tax rate is unclear. The district office did not have any record of a financial analysis being done.

Joyce Sauchuk, the town's manager of labor relations, sent Clark a letter Monday asking for an actuarial report on the cost of the cost-of-living adjustments. The town administers the pension plan on behalf of the district, Sauchuk said, and state law requires the evaluation before the retirement plan is altered.

"You can't go forward without one. That's what the statute says," she said. "I won't be processing it without it."

Clark said the report is "being worked on."

Clark and Kevin Czapla, the new vice president, negotiated the contract with the union. Clark is a professional firefighter in Waterford, while Czapla is a business owner and lieutenant in the Old Mystic Fire Department.

FOI violation?

The 10-year agreement was approved July 26 by a vote of 2 to 1, with Czapla and another new board member, Thomas Wimler, who works in emergency services in Durham, voting in favor. Clerk Nancy Beckwith, who works at Electric Boat, voted no.

The previous contract with the Poquonnock Bridge Professional Fire Fighters Association, Local 2704, spanned five years but was made retroactive by two years when it was signed.

The firefighters' union in Groton City just signed a two-year deal. Wages will stay the same under that contract in the first year and will increase 1.5 percent in the second year.

Board member Peter Legnos, the former vice president of the Poquonnock Bridge board, said a 10-year agreement in this market is "crazy" and it took people "sympathetic to the union" to approve it.

"If it does stick and we can't afford it, we're going to have to let people go," he said. "You can't spend money you don't have. We're not the federal government. We can't go print it."

A newly hired Poquonnock Bridge firefighter currently would make $52,700, according to the contract. Under the contract terms, an entry-level firefighter in 2021 would earn about $70,000. The highest-paid employee, the fire marshal, currently makes $75,450, which would increase to slightly more than $100,000 in 2021.

The contract covers 28 of the 30 sworn members. The fire chief and deputy fire chief are not included.

The district, meanwhile, is using Groton City's ladder truck because it does not have the money to replace its 20-year-old ladder truck, which was decertified because of extensive rusting. A new truck would cost about $1.2 million, and the district is applying for a federal grant to help defray the cost.

Following the vote, Beckwith asked Town Clerk Betsy Moukawsher whether the July 26 meeting violated the Freedom of Information Act, either because the public wasn't properly notified that the special meeting was being held or because the agenda didn't state the board would discuss the contract and the retiree payments beyond the non-public executive session.

A violation could call into question the validity of the contract.

Moukawsher, who asked the state Freedom of Information Commission for advice, said the board did post the meeting properly, but the agenda should have stated there would be public discussion of the contract, which would allow for a vote.

Beckwith relayed this message to the board at its Aug. 9 meeting, and the members agreed to ask their attorney to request a declaratory ruling from the state commission.

The commission, however, does not issue rulings in this way, according to Thomas Hennick, the commission's public information officer. Hennick said the commission only investigates whether there has been a violation after a complaint has been filed, and he had not received one about the meeting as of Monday. A complaint must be filed within 30 days of the alleged violation.

The board could render the point moot by voting again. But since the make-up of the board has changed, doing so could lead to a different result.

Board changes

At the district board's annual meeting in May, the fewer than 30 voters in attendance did not re-elect president Alan Ackley and vice president Legnos, two business owners in town, and instead chose Clark and Czapla. Wimler was elected to the vacant director-at-large position while Beckwith stayed on as clerk and Thomas Santacroce kept his position as treasurer. The $4.7 million annual budget was approved.

District voters then petitioned the board to hold a special meeting on expanding the five-member board. State law says a district may, at its annual meeting or at a special meeting, increase the membership of its board of directors to nine members.

The expansion allowed Ackley and Legnos to return to the board as members the week after the contract was approved. Randy Ackley, Alan Ackley's cousin, and Ron Yuhas joined the board.

Clark said "there is a lot of turmoil" because the members who were voted out worked to increase the board to get back in. But he said the board still can be productive.

"Even though my viewpoints might be different, the end goal is still the same for everybody, which would be to try and help contain costs," he said.

Czapla deferred questions to Clark and said he was considering not staying on the new nine-member board because he didn't want "to deal with the hassle."

Alan Ackley has been a proponent of consolidating the district with the town to try to lower taxes. The majority of the town's nine districts have their own equipment and staffs. Legnos said he believes a flat tax for fire services could be applied throughout the town to "get some balance," since Poquonnock Bridge firefighters often respond to fires in other districts.

A clause in the new contract could be interpreted to prohibit mutual aid since it states the district can't contract out for any services union members perform, including fire suppression.

The town has not moved forward with the consolidation idea, but some view the new firefighters' contract as a way for union members to maintain their jobs and benefits in case the topic comes up again.

"It's more about guaranteeing their jobs, and I think it's going to hurt them, not help them, because now you'll have a taxpayer backlash," Legnos said.

Ackley declined to comment. Clark said he's not opposed to consolidation if it's done properly, with multiple districts consolidating together at the same time. Doing it one at a time, he said, would not be cost effective or efficient.

When asked whether that would be a likely possibility since the leaders of the various districts refused to meet to discuss consolidation in the past, Clark said, "I like to think so."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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