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Troubled Poquonnock Bridge Fire District facing cutbacks

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published June 14. 2013 4:00AM

Groton - The newly elected president of the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District Board Thursday said he believes the board will try to run the district on the $3.5 million budget voters approved rather than ask taxpayers for more money.

Alan Ackley, who becomes board president July 1, said firefighter layoffs are not inevitable and not what the board wants, but could possibly happen.

"Our intention is not to go back to the public," he said. "The public said, 'This is what we want to give you.'"

The budget approved at the district's annual meeting May 16 was about half of what the board sought and not enough to cover salaries and benefits, board members said.

While the new board does not take office until July 1, some decisions are expected, Ackley said.

He said that "going to a partial volunteer company is an absolute," that the board will dismantle the fire box alarm system on the street, that it will seek union concessions and will stop paying overtime.

He said the board may also consider limiting firefighter response to some emergency medical calls and may look into buying a combination pumper and ladder truck rather than a pumper truck. The ladder truck at Poquonnock Bridge has been out of service for months and the district has been relying on mutual aid.

The district board had sought approval of a $6.29 million budget for the coming year to pay its bills, but taxpayers voted it down. Voters then elected a new district board with six incumbent members, including Ackley, and three new ones.

The existing fire district board had a meeting scheduled Thursday but canceled it due to lack of a quorum. Ackley said he hopes to schedule a special meeting of the newly elected board within the next two weeks. The board would then also meet on its regularly scheduled second Thursday of the month.

Meanwhile, a special meeting of the Poquonnock Bridge Volunteer Fire Co. No. 1 Inc., which owns the Fort Hill Station and leases it to the fire district, was called Thursday at Groton Public Library. The meeting was advertised as being needed to elect administrative officers and restore the volunteer company.

John Parfitt Jr., the current vice president of the company's executive board, said he didn't know why it was called but said it violated bylaws, and he adjourned it in two minutes.

Parfitt said he opposes reliance on volunteers because he believes it would undermine public safety if not done properly. He added that he does not want it done at the expense of career firefighters.

Board President Ed Welch said the district would need time, training and money to rebuild a volunteer force, and he doesn't know where the money would come from.

"The way they're going about it is all wrong," he said. The volunteer company will hold its next meeting at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday at the Fort Hill Station.

Ackley said he believes volunteers would help the situation.

"If 70 percent of this country is protected by volunteers, then there's no reason why we in our district can't have the same kind of situation that would help out the taxpayers," Ackley said.

Under the $3.5 million budget, the tax rate in Poquonnock Bridge would fall from 5.9 mills to about 5 mills, board members said. Groton has nine independent fire districts, and Poquonnock Bridge has the highest tax rate of the nine.

"When you talk to the average person on the street and they find out what they're paying, they think that something needs to be done to bring the cost down," member Ronald Yuhas said. "We don't want any safety issues, but the cost has to come down, and the taxpayers did vote that way at the meeting."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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