As clock ticks, Poquonnock Bridge fire chief offers drastic measures

Groton - Poquonnock Bridge Fire Chief Todd Paige distributed two proposals Thursday to deal with the district's deepening financial crisis, both of which would lay off firefighters, close one of two fire stations and eliminate the fire inspector job, and one which effectively would shut down firefighting operations.

Paige developed the plans at the board's request, attempting to spell out ways the district could stretch the voter-approved budget of $3.5 million through the end of the fiscal year.

As presented, the plans could take effect as early as Sept. 30. The board did not vote on either plan, instead saying it would contact the state Office of Policy and Management today to seek immediate assistance.

Board member Peter Legnos said he would ask to meet as soon as possible, "because it's an emergency."

The first proposal would lay off nine firefighters and the office clerk for the fire marshal, eliminate the fire inspector job, close the district's 13 Fort Hill Road station, and eliminate the fund balance.

The second would lay off all 26 firefighters and captains, eliminate the fire inspector job, lay off the office clerk for the fire marshal and instead provide for a chief, a deputy chief, an administrative assistant and fire marshal. It effectively would end firefighting operations.

"In essence, (there) is no capability to respond to emergencies," Paige wrote, adding, "The resulting budget would completely devastate operations and eliminate the fire department."

The two proposals differ because one assumes a tax levy of 5.2 mills set by the board of directors, which would bring in just under $4.45 million. Voters at the annual meeting approved a budget of $3.5 million, and the district board set a tax rate to collect that amount, but it typically also receives some money from other sources, such as interest payments and pilot money from the town to protect town-owned property.

In the $4.45 million scenario, under which nine firefighters would be laid off, Paige said, the district would violate the union contract's minimum staffing requirement of five firefighters per shift. The budget would support four firefighters on three of the shifts instead.

The staffing cuts, along with closing the Fort Hill station, would mean longer response times, he said.

"This will lead to greater fire damage and financial losses in the community due to reduced fire prevention activities, greater business interruption, increased fire spread, and greater water damage due to the need for exterior attacks," Paige wrote.

The second scenario outlines what would happen if the board budgeted strictly $3.5 million and no more.

Both plans have a deadline of Sept. 30 to be implemented. Paige did not discuss the proposals at the meeting except to tell the board that every month it waits, another layoff would be required.

The board voted, 5-2, Thursday to spend another $10,000 to retain the services of a Providence law firm advising it as to how to handle its financial situation, a possible tax levy and a possible bankruptcy. Members Deb Monteiro and Kenneth Richards III voted against that expenditure.

The board also voted, 6-1, to challenge a recent decision by the State Labor Relations Board in Superior Court. The state board recently upheld a 10-year firefighters' contract that calls for raises of 3 percent per year and increased benefits for retirees, among other changes. The ruling demands that the board take action within 30 days. Richards cast the sole vote against the legal challenge.

Monteiro said she didn't agree with challenging the union contract but supported going to court to buy the board more time to get its financial house in order. She said that if the board were forced to pay back wages and benefits within 30 days, it would run out of money.

District President Alan Ackley reported that he received a letter from Five Star Fire offering to buy the department's ladder truck for $10,000, including the siren, which isn't mounted on the truck. The Sept. 12 letter said the offer is good for 30 days and includes free pickup.

The board did not vote on the sale.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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