Poquonnock Bridge voters to decide fate of board, 39 percent tax rate hike

Groton - Ron Yuhas will have one goal at the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District annual meeting on Thursday: explaining how the district got into its financial predicament, and why it's so bad.

Yuhas, elected to the board of directors about a year ago, doesn't care whether voters boot him out of office. He just wants taxpayers to know what they're dealing with. He wants them to understand that he's tried, and to remember that whoever follows him will have to deal with it, too.

The expenses "are out of our control," he said during an interview Tuesday, driven by contracts and outstanding bills.

Firefighters, also interviewed Tuesday, disagree. They said the board's failure to support necessary spending in the past is what created the financial problem, and a rational board could solve it.

"Their mismanagement is what put us in this hole," Poqounnock Bridge firefighter Damien Speranza said, "not our contract."

The fire district holds its annual meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Groton Senior Center to vote on a proposed $6.29 million budget for the coming fiscal year, a 34.6 percent increase over current spending. The budget will require a tax rate increase from 5.95 mills to 8.3 mills - more than 39 percent - if approved by voters.

Election of the district's board also will be held. A group of citizens has organized a slate to try to oust six members of the current board.

The fire district plans to have a registrar along with the board clerk show up at 6 p.m. Thursday to check photo identifications and voter registration records to make sure those showing up are eligible to vote.

Meetings have been so contentious that police were called to the last one.

"It doesn't matter who's elected," board member Alan Ackley said. "Unless we deal with these unfunded liabilities, we're going to go bankrupt. Bottom line."

Board member Peter Legnos said a lawyer will attend the meeting for advice if the budget fails. Ackley and Legnos said they didn't like the budget they approved, but had to include liabilities. Ackley said he'd vote against the budget.

If the district keeps the current tax rate, it won't be able to pay its contractual obligations and may be considered in default, Legnos said. Poquonnock Bridge has 31 employees, including 28 firefighters, an administrative assistant, the chief and deputy chief.

Deb Monteiro, a former town councilor seeking a seat on the fire district board, said the union indicated a willingness to negotiate with the board if it were reasonable, and if this happened, "then maybe we wouldn't be involved in unseating them."

Monteiro said she does not believe the budget should pass as it is proposed.

Nicki Bresnyan, who is representing her father as a resident of Poquonnock Bridge and is Monteiro's sister, said the budget could be changed to spend the money differently. A new budget also might be an increase but could be written to fix the ladder truck, keep the alarm system, recognize the firefighters' contact and bring bills current.

Last June, the New London accounting firm Baude & Rolfe P.C. issued a report saying the district should budget an additional $1 million annually to meet its pension obligations, $3.1 million as of 2012.

The district had put nothing toward the account that pays for the medical and life insurance benefits of retired firefighters and their spouses, Ackley said. To make this right, he said, the board included $1 million in the proposed budget.

The board also added $277,000 to pay for the contractually obligated health insurance, retirement plans and pensions for firefighters; $75,000 for legal feels to fight the union over the new 10-year contract that was passed before the new board was elected; $47,000 for a new roof on the Fort Hill Station; $133,000 for reserve and contingency in anticipation of buying a new pumper truck and a car for the chief; and about $70,000 for training and uniforms for 10 volunteer firefighters.

The district budget also includes $82,000 to pay last year's rental fees to the City of Groton for fire hydrants. Ackley said he delayed paying the bill because he was trying to negotiate a lower rate.

Legnos, the board member, said he's tried talking to the union, for example suggesting a combination pumper and ladder truck to meet both needs, but he was refused.

"There's no compromise with these guys," he said. "It's their way or the highway."

Mike Gale, a firefighter, said the union agreed during negotiations in 2009 to change health insurance coverage to carry a higher deductible, saving the district about $300,000.

"So for them to tell us we're unreasonable is offensive," he said.

Legnos said he would resign from the board if the unfunded liabilities are not paid.

"We have an obligation," he said. "Now we're being attacked because we're meeting that obligation."

d.straszheim@theday.com

If you go

What: Poqounnock Bridge Fire District annual meeting

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Groton Senior Center, 102 Newtown Road, Groton

Details: Beginning at 6 p.m., officials will check photo IDs and voter registration records to determine voter eligibility.

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