Published May 16. 2013 10:00PM Updated May 17. 2013 6:58PM
Groton — During a jammed, raucous meeting at which some people yelled from their seats and others walked out cursing, taxpayers in the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District Thursday ousted three members of the board of directors and approved a budget of $3.5 million for the coming fiscal year, a little more than half of what the district board had sought.
The board proposed a budget of $6.29 million, which would have required a more than 39 percent tax rate increase, from 5.95 mills to 8.3 mills. Residents at annual meeting voted, 114-79, for a budget of $3.5 million.
"The financial situation in this fire district is out of control," said Mike Gothie, a property owner at the meeting.
More than 200 people packed the Groton Senior Center, with at least 70 people standing. Groton Police were stationed outside.
Firefighters said later that the vote could force the district into bankruptcy or result in layoffs.
Residents ousted three board members: President Chris Clark, a paid firefighter in Waterford; Kevin Czapla, also a career firefighter; and Tom Wimler, chief of Durham Emergency Medical Service Management.
Taxpayers instead elected Dr. Gary Bertman, owner of G.P. Family Care in New London; Kenneth Richards III, a life member of Mystic River Ambulance; and Deb Monteiro, a former Groton town councilor.
Alan Ackley, Randy Ackley, Peter Legnos, Ron Yuhas, Nancy Beckwith and Tom Santacroce were re-elected.
Bertman, Alan Ackley and Randy Ackley were elected to three-year terms; Legnos, Yuhas and Beckwith were elected to two-year terms; and Santacroce, Richards and Monteiro were elected to one-year terms. All terms begin July 1.
Throughout the budget discussion, people shouted at the board, called for order or booed. The public address system failed multiple times and several people expressed confusion, saying they didn't understand what was going on.
Joan Steinford, 81, a member of the Representative Town Meeting, said the discussion and vote were not being handled correctly. "You worded it without discussion," she said. "It's improper."
When she tried to go on, the lawyer for the board, Glenn Carberry, commented, "I'm sorry, could you be quiet, ma'am?"
The audience booed.
At another point, a man complained that people weren't speaking into the microphone.
"This is a meeting of the whole, not just you 10 people in the front of the room," he yelled at the board. He declined to give his name.
Later, board member Nancy Beckwith told the audience they could support any budget amount they wanted, but the board of directors would decide how the money would be spent.
"What about the taxpayers, people that pay that money?" someone shouted.
Monteiro suggested a budget of $5.58 million earlier in the evening.
She said her budget proposal would have provided money to recognize the firefighters' contact and pay salaries back to July 2012; fix the district's ladder truck; keep the fire box alarm system; remove funding for 10 volunteers at the Fort Hill station; bring the bill for hydrant rentals current; reduce funding for attorneys fees by $60,000; and contribute $250,000 to the fund for health and life insurance for retired firefighters and their spouses.
Pattie Selander brought her three children, ages 9, 7 and 1, to the annual meeting even though the youngest was sick with an ear infection, because she said she wanted change.
"I want a totally different board," she said, adding that she also wanted the district's ladder truck fixed and career firefighters answering calls.
"The time that it would take for them to come to my children is well worth them being paid firefighters," she said. She said she grew up in a district with volunteers.
Rick Maurice said he showed up to vote because he saw a notice that his taxes were going to go up $1,100.
"It doesn't make any sense," he said.
Kaitlyn King said the fire district could do things differently.
"There's definitely room for change," she said.
Residents also voted, 50-37, to authorize the treasurer to take out temporary loans as may be deemed necessary by the board.
Helen Rush said she's concerned because the district already can't pay its bills. She said she expects the board to come back to taxpayers if it needs more money.
"I'm not giving you a blank check," she said.