Poquonnock Bridge Fire District to seek legal advice, wants contract talks with firefighters

Groton - The Poquonnock Bridge Fire District Board voted Monday to seek legal advice about the district's solvency related to the firefighters' contract and to ask the union to re-enter negotiations as soon as possible.

In the meantime, the board authorized Fire Chief Todd Paige to continue running the department based on last year's budget, but to be cautious.

Board member Peter Legnos said the district will run out of money by February based on its $3.5 million budget, and must know if the union will renegotiate its contract. The board will ask the Poquonnock Bridge Professional Firefighters Union to re-enter negotiations no later than Aug. 5.

If the union won't negotiate, Legnos said the board may have to look into declaring bankruptcy. Under state law, municipalities including fire districts may not declare bankruptcy without the written consent of the governor.

Taxpayers approved a budget of $3.5 million for the year that began July 1, slightly more than half of what the board had sought and not enough to meet payroll. District Board Chairman Alan Ackley made the motion for the $3.5 million after higher amounts were rejected. Ackley said he thought the figure would be amended.

The board's discussion Monday took place in executive session. Newly elected member Gary Bertman said he wishes the public could have heard it.

"It was educational. It was insightful," he said. "It was pointed. There was a lot that came out."

Bertman said the board will do its best to do right by the firefighters and taxpayers.

Damien Speranza, a Poquonnock Bridge firefighter hired in 2011, said before the meeting: "I'm bracing myself to get laid off. Unnecessarily laid off."

Bryan Quilter, a district firefighter for nine and a half years, said the financial issue is self-created.

"It's created by these board members who have been there more than 10 years and now they're blaming the firemen," Quilter said.

Joan Steinford, a resident of Poquonnock Bridge and a member of the Representative Town Meeting, said laying off firefighters would "devastate" response time. Paige said in an earlier interview he could not run the department on $3.5 million and the budget would "decimate public safety."

Mariellen French, who owns property in Poquonnock Bridge, said the board's actions must be kept in the open.

"I mean, it's our money that pays for the fire department," she said. "And it's millions of dollars."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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