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Nearly 40 residents and firefighters packed a meeting of the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District Thursday night, one shaking in anger as he spoke, saying the district is in chaos, the department needs a ladder truck for public safety, and the Fort Hill station should not be turned into a volunteer department.
At least two speakers said some members of the district board need "to go."
Bill Simpson said he lives in a third-floor apartment, which is actually four stories up with a bedroom on the fifth level.
"I sure as hell don't want to get torched to death in my apartment," he said, shaking in anger. He said he'd donate $1,000 toward the ladder truck from his own disability pay. "See if you can get your rich people in this town to match that."
The speakers were responding to the budget approved by the board of directors April 25 that calls for spending 40 percent more than the current year's budget, requires a corresponding increase in the tax rate, and anticipates turning the Fort Hill station into a volunteer department, among other changes. The budget goes to district taxpayers for a vote at the annual meeting at 7 p.m. on May 16 at the Groton Senior Center.
Cindy Baril called plans to remove fire alarm call boxes, reduce fire response to medical calls and not replace the department's ladder truck "irresponsible."
"Maybe you don't mean to deliberately sabotage our residents' safety," she said.
The ladder truck at Poquonnock Bridge has been out of service for months and the district has been relying on Groton City Fire Department for mutual aid.
Joan Steinford, another speaker, said the district has businesses with multiple stories, such as the Mystic Marriott, to think about.
District board member Ron Yuhas said no one wants to cut services. He told the audience the board has to make changes or the district won't survive financially. He said 80 percent of its funding is salaries or items it can't change, so it must change what it can.
"If you don't get some volunteers in here now, this department will not keep running," he said. He added that other towns are getting rid of fire alarm call boxes, and shopping centers and other large facilities can pay for this service.
Yuhas added that the budget doesn't even include the recent contract for firefighters, and the union must make concessions.
"We're trying to save this department," he said. Some members of the audience swore under their breath as he spoke.
At one point, district board member Tom Wimler said a volunteer department can't be built overnight. When Yuhas tried to speak, audience members yelled, "Let him finish!"
Lori Watrous, a member of the Representative Town Meeting, read a statement from La Triumphe Apartments, which said the complex fears having a department without a ladder truck or adequate response.
"If one life were lost, it would force us out of business," the statement read, adding, "We should not have to worry about enough people showing up to an incident."
District board member Alan Ackley said 70 percent of districts nationwide are protected by volunteer departments, and most districts in Groton are protected this way as well.
"If volunteers work very well in other districts, why doesn't the executive board feel that it could be done here?" he said.
Other speakers said the department is in chaos.
Deb Monteiro, who served on the council from 2007 until 2011, said before the meeting that the board is fighting internally and doesn't get along with the firefighters, and the chief is caught in the middle.
"I don't think their agenda is anything other than trying to drive this district into bankruptcy or having it have to be taken over by the town," she said.