Groton - The Poquonnock Bridge Fire District Board of Directors announced Thursday that they will seek "draconian" budget cuts, a hiring freeze and even elimination of entire departments among other moves in an attempt to bring the district taxes in line with the other districts in town.
Board member Alan Ackley read a statement at the tense meeting that started with revisions to the district's operating procedures and chipped away at the authority of newly elected board President Christopher Clark.
Clark was elected during an unexpected regime change at the annual meeting in May and the new board later signed a 10-year contract with the Poquonnock Bridge Professional Firefighters union, Local 2704. That contract called for a 3 percent per year wage increase, a 3 percent per year jump in pension benefits and increased staffing. The union president, Kale Kiely, was also promoted from fire inspector to deputy fire marshal.
"What happened in the last four months is a perfect example of why collective bargaining has no place in the public sector," Ackley said. "I will go on record to the public that this fire district will be run more like a business than an entitlement. No longer will a complicit union executive committee and a select group of directors be allowed to ram a contract down the throats of the hard-working people paying their salaries without any concern for the financial welfare of the taxpayers."
Ackley also said the district board would seek 50 percent reduction in spending and look to eliminate services where they are being duplicated, a reference to emergency medical, rescue and false alarms calls where firefighters respond with police and ambulance services.
"We need to sharpen our pencils and, like Alan said, run it like a business," said board member Ron Yuhas. "We sure can't keep spending the way we're spending."
Ackley, ousted from the board with others in May, was voted back on with three others in August after the district petitioned to increase the size of the board from five to nine members. The board has had a tumultuous relationship with Clark ever since.
During a special meeting last week, the board voted to rescind the firefighters contract on technical grounds. Firefighters are now working under an old contract.
The Poquonnock Bridge Fire District is the largest and by far the busiest of nine fire districts in Groton and also carries the highest tax rate at 5.9 mills - which is paid in addition to Groton taxes.
Poquonnock Bridge Fire Chief Todd Paige had remained above the fray until Thursday when he told the board that his administration was being sidelined from decisions affecting the department. As one example, Paige said he was surprised to learn Clark had switched the department's health care broker to a union broker who appears not able to handle the job.
The board quickly voted to remove the broker and adjourned into an previously unannounced executive session to discuss Paige's "role as fire chief." State law requires public agencies to list executive sessions on their agendas.