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Groton - The Poquonnock Bridge Fire District will have to honor a disputed 10-year union contract that provides annual wage increases of 3 percent following a State Board of Labor Relations ruling in favor of the union.
The decision, issued Wednesday, means the fire district must comply with a collective bargaining agreement that dates back to July 2012, pay any back wages and benefits it owes and notify the labor board within 30 days of how it has corrected the situation.
In addition to higher pay, the contract requires additional staffing, increased paid personal leave for firefighters and a boost in benefits for retirees.
As a practical matter, the decision in favor of the union will accelerate how fast the fire district runs out of money, district board member Peter Legnos said Friday, though he could not predict when that would happen.
Legnos and other board members said they had not yet seen the decision.
Fire Chief Todd Paige said the district would need about $400,000 more this fiscal year to honor the contract.
As of Aug. 8 - a little more than five weeks into the fiscal year - the fire district had spent $800,000, or 22 percent, of the $3.5 million annual budget approved by taxpayers, Paige said. But he said spending varies month to month and the district has upfront bills to pay such as property and liability insurance, which were among the initial bills.
The board voted earlier this week to retain a Providence law firm to advise it on a potential filing for bankruptcy protection or receivership. Legnos said the lawyers were gone for the holiday weekend but he would seek their advice when they returned.
"It's a damned good thing we voted to retain those attorneys when we did," Legnos said. "Because if in the short term we have to go pay all the back wages and increase manning and whatever, we're going to run out of money way before January. We'd better get something filed really quick."
Union President Kale Kiely could not be reached.
According to the decision, the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut/IAFF Local 2704 argued that the fire district violated the Municipal Employee Relations Act by rescinding its approval of the contract.
"Given the record before us we agree with the Union that the Fire District's conduct is in repudiation of a valid collective bargaining agreement and that remedial action is warranted," the labor board wrote.
Labor Department spokeswoman Nancy Steffens said a defendant or plaintiff has 45 days to appeal a decision to Superior Court if it's dissatisfied.
Helen Rush, a resident who attends fire district board meetings, said she believes the district board should honor the contract but renegotiate the 10 years because it's not a typical term. She said people don't understand how difficult firefighters' jobs are and how important response time is.
"I think that it's sad that it's come to this," Rush said. "I think that a little bit more understanding and trust on both sides would be helpful."
Board member Ron Yuhas said a subcommittee of the board is trying to figure out how to run the department on the $3.5 million voters approved. "We're going to have some hard decisions of what we're going to do and how we're going to do it," he said. He declined to comment on the decision.
Legnos said the district needs cooperation from the union to solve its financial problems.
"I'm not trying to take anything away from the firemen; I'm trying to save their jobs," he said. "They really don't get it. They just don't get it."
The 10-year labor agreement was approved in July 2012 by a vote of 2-1. The two votes in favor of the contract were cast by Kevin Czapla, a business owner and lieutenant in the Old Mystic Fire Department, and Thomas Wimler, who works in emergency services in Durham. Current board member Nancy Beckwith voted no.
Christopher Clark, a professional firefighter from Waterford, was president of the fire district board at the time the contract was approved.