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Groton - The Poquonnock Bridge Fire District board of directors approved a budget Thursday that calls for spending 40 percent more than the current year's budget, and requires a corresponding increase in the tax rate, according to preliminary figures provided by a board member.
Figures were not final, but the budget was expected to rise from about $4.67 million to $6.24 million, board member Peter Legnos said.
He said there could be slight changes and estimated that the tax rate would rise from the current 5.9 mills to 8.3 mills, if the budget were approved.
The fire district will hold a meeting at 7 p.m. May 16 in the Groton Senior Center for district residents to vote on the spending plan.
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 4.59 mills, followed by Center Groton, at 3.5 mills.
The budget also anticipates turning the Fort Hill station into a volunteer department. It includes $42,600 to train 10 volunteers and $77,000 to buy clothing and protective gear.
"The intention is to restore volunteers so that by attrition, as people leave, we can reduce the need for paid staff and supplement it with a good, strong volunteer organization," Legnos said.
He said the department was forced to increase the budget partly because an auditor recently cited it for inadequately funding its liabilities.
"We are essentially insolvent," Legnos said. "Our auditor told us that at the last meeting."
To begin to turn things around, the board added $1 million toward unfunded pensions. The auditor had suggested $3 million by this time.
Helen Rush, who attended Thursday's meeting, said she wants paid firefighters. Rush said they were critical in responding to a fire last year at Laurel Glen Condominiums, an 80-unit complex where she is an association member.
"Because they were here, they responded immediately, and it saved us thousands of dollars," she said.
Rush said she also believes the district needs a ladder truck. The board declined a two-year contract offer from Groton City to supply a ladder truck to all structure fires.
Board member Alan Ackley said the district still would receive mutual aid from departments when needed.
Fire district meetings are typically sparsely attended but Thursday night's had about 25 people in the audience, including a former Groton town councilor who said she's been upset with what she's seen in the last year.
Deb Monteiro, who served on the council from 2007 until 2011, said every two months she hears about a new problem: the ladder truck doesn't work; the board won't recognize the union contract; the board, the chief and firefighters can't get along.
"My biggest concern is that the shenanigans are going to jeopardize the welfare of people who live in this district," Monteiro said. During her second council term, she was chairman of the council's public safety committee.
Monteiro began distributing a four-page list of concerns to neighbors about two weeks ago to educate people about the issues and let the board know taxpayers are watching.
Her list contends that the ladder truck has been out of service for more than 600 days; that the board has discussed scaling back fire department response to medical calls; and that it wants to dismantle the box fire alarms. Groton has 263 pull boxes, of which 131 are on district streets.
"It just seems like the district is being driven into the ground," Monteiro said.
The board decided Thursday to begin turning over the box alarms to an alarm service so they're no longer the responsibility of the department.
The Poquonnock Bridge Fire Department has a paid staff of 28 union firefighters and runs out of two stations, one each on Fort Hill and Long Hill roads.
The district covers 12 square miles, and the stations are positioned at the east and west ends of town. Poquonnock Bridge has not had any volunteer firefighters since 2005.
Deputy Chief Curt Floyd said during an interview earlier this week that he didn't know whether a volunteer department would work.
"Is it possible? I don't know. Probably," he said. "Will it work? I don't know. I think we have to talk about it."
He said despite the issues Poquonnock Bridge is facing, public safety is not at risk.
"Ultimately, the people in the fire district are safe," he said.