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Poquonnock Bridge Fire District prepares for possible bankruptcy filing

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published 08/28/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 08/28/2013 12:09 AM

Groton - The Poquonnock Bridge board of directors voted Tuesday to retain the Providence law firm representing the Central Coventry Fire District in receivership in Rhode Island, and a board member said the firm believes Poquonnock Bridge meets the criteria for bankruptcy or receivership.

The board also said Tuesday it would contact the governor's office and the attorney general's office to seek advice. A municipality, including a fire district, needs approval of the governor to declare bankruptcy.

Board member Peter Legnos said the board has a financial responsibility and must act. He said the union won't negotiate, and in the meantime, finances are deteriorating.

"We have to get to the middle somehow," he said. "And the numbers are so big that when we run out of money, it will be a train wreck for everybody."

Board members voted 7-2 to spend $10,000 to retain Chace, Ruttenberg & Freedman LLP of Providence.

Board member Deb Monteiro voted against retaining the law firm.

"If we can't pay the bills that we have now, how in God's name are we going to pay … Are the attorneys going to get rich here?" she said.

The law firm has asked for a copy of the fire district's auditor's report, a history of the union contract, a narrative explaining the recent history and makeup of the board, the current budget and a proposed budget.

This means the board must develop a budget to make $3.5 million - about half of what it needs to run the district - last until the end of the fiscal year.

The spending plan would almost surely mean a violation of the union contract, as the board does not have enough to meet payroll, board members said. It could include layoffs, closing the Fort Hill Station and dismantling the box alarm system in town, board members said. Box alarms are located on streets and at businesses to provide a direct link to dispatch.

The board voted Tuesday to send more than 130 letters to businesses notifying them that they should make other arrangements for fire alarm service because the district may shut down the box alarm system. There are about 260 such boxes in Poquonnock Bridge.

Board member Ron Yuhas said the district has no choice because it can't keep paying for such items.

"It's too much," he said. "You've got one of the poorer districts in the town paying twice as much as everyone else, and it's not fair to them."

Fire Department Chief Todd Paige said he believes the district could run out of money in January.

Legnos said the district could talk to the town about taking over the district, but the town would probably decline because the district carries $11 million in unfunded pension liability.

Legnos said that if a court-appointed receiver became involved, that might compel the union to negotiate.

He said the board could also go back to taxpayers and ask for more money.

Board member Gary Bertman said the district has lost its direction and should ask state officials for guidance.

"We've lost sight that this is a community and the people here are really not being taken care of properly," he said.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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