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Fire chief describes Poquonnock Bridge financial problems

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published July 12. 2013 4:00AM
District owes $461,000, could be out of money in early 2014

Groton - Poquonnock Bridge Fire Chief Todd Paige told the district board Thursday it owes more than $461,000 this month, not including payroll, and the district will be out of money by February or March.

Paige also said the district owes Groton Utilities more than $99,000 for fire hydrant rentals.

Taxpayers recently approved a budget of $3.5 million for the year that began July 1, about half of what the board had sought and not enough to cover payroll. Voters also elected three new board members.

The new board met for the first time since that budget was set Thursday at the Groton Senior Center. Members authorized Paige to pay the bills owed for July and scheduled another meeting for 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Senior Center to come up with a future spending plan.

The board then went into executive session to discuss the firefighters' union contract as it relates to the budget.

About 40 taxpayers and firefighters attending the meeting Thursday, some of whom spoke angrily about the district's finances and potential cuts. Some demanded that reports be read aloud, shouting from their seats.

Others waited to speak.

"You are entrusted with a huge amount of tax money collected from us and it is definitely our business what you do with it," Cindy Baril said.

Other speakers said they're upset the district still hasn't fixed its ladder truck but is depending on Groton City for mutual aid.

Hank Steinford said he had a fire at his house earlier this year and the last truck to arrive was the City of Groton's ladder truck.

"Had it been a situation where someone was upstairs it would have been a disaster," he said.

One potential cut that may be considered would be to limit firefighters' response to medical calls. Firefighters in Poquonnock Bridge are considered first responders to medical calls, meaning they are dispatched along with an ambulance and often arrive first.

Joan Steinford, his wife and a member of Representative Town Meeting, said she's concerned about timely response to medical calls. She said a woman two doors away had a stroke, and the ambulance took almost 15 minutes. But Steinford said Poquonnock Bridge firefighters arrived quickly, got her oxygen and helped her.

"Time is of the essence with stroke," Steinford said. "I've had one."

Libbie Burdick, whose husband Robert Burdick served as Poquonnock fire chief from 1979 until his death in 1993, said of the board before the meeting: "They're playing with people's lives."

She told the board she was distressed by what has happened, and added, "I know he is."

She then presented a small bouquet to Paige to recognize the firefighters for their decades of service.

During an earlier interview, Noank Fire District Chairman Frank Socha said firefighters are frequently the first on the scene of an emergency.

Socha, who also has worked as a 911 dispatcher in Groton since 1989, said all of the town's fire departments, including Groton City, Noank, Mystic, Old Mystic and Center Groton, respond to emergency medical calls.

Groton has two ambulance services, Socha explained; Groton Ambulance on Route 117 and Mystic River Ambulance on Sandy Hollow Road, which covers a portion of Stonington.

Mystic River responds to Poquonnock Bridge only for mutual aid if Groton Ambulance is unavailable, Socha said.

He said because ambulances take patients to hospitals and answer multiple calls, crews may be at some distance when an emergency call comes in, and it could be eight to 10 minutes before an ambulance arrives. Those minutes can make a difference, he said.

"It's all about time, really," he said. "Time is the key element."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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