Published September 18. 2013 4:00AM
Groton - Poquonnock Bridge Fire Department Chief Todd Paige said he feels like someone handed him a box of broken parts and he's got to put them back together.
How did it get so bad? How did a relatively small fire district wind up on the verge of bankruptcy, paying lawyers, fighting with the union and contemplating closing a firehouse and laying off firefighters?
"People are just stomping all over other people trying to get what they want," Fire District board member Deb Monteiro said recently. "No one is thinking about where is this going to lead us later on. No one has any respect or any consideration for anyone else in this process."
Last week, district board President Alan Ackley wrote a letter to the state's attorney general and an acting undersecretary at the Office of Policy and Management, saying the district is in financial crisis and asking for assistance. In it, Ackley explained what led to the problems.
All sides now await a response from the governor's administration.
In the meantime, Paige, who's been with the district 27 years, chief for 12, distributed two proposals to deal with the district's worsening finances. He developed them at the board's request, to spell out what it would have to do to make the voter-approved budget of $3.5 million last until the end of the fiscal year.
One proposal would lay off nine firefighters and the fire marshal's clerk, eliminate the fire inspector position, close one of the district's two fire stations at 13 Fort Hill Road and eliminate the fund balance. The other effectively would shutter the district's firefighting operations.
Monteiro said getting state help and checking the possibility of bankruptcy filing take time "and we don't have a lot of time."
The fire district is already halfway through the 30-day waiting period imposed by the State Board of Labor Relations, which ordered it to honor a 10-year contract with firefighters and its annual raises of 3 percent and other benefits.
The district is challenging that ruling, Monteiro said, but there's no guarantee the court will grant a stay.
"People need to know that we're in a crisis here," she said.
Paige said at a meeting earlier this year that Poquonnock Bridge firefighters have saved several lives in the last year.
One was Richard Blazer's late wife.
On April 23, Blazer said, he dialed 911 from his house on Laurelwood Road. His wife had called to him but as soon as he got to her, she fell back against the wall, unconscious.
She had congestive heart failure and told him her back hurt right before she passed out. So he started CPR himself. He's 75.
Police and firefighters from Poquonnock Bridge arrived within minutes and took over, he said. Blazer said he has called 911 about 10 times during the five years that his wife was sick, and most of the time, firefighters were first to arrive.
His wife, Elizabeth McAvoy, 74, survived only a few days after his last call. But Blazer said he's grateful for firefighters' quick response.
"When you need the fire department, you need them right now," he said.
Monteiro said she hopes people realize what problems in a fire district potentially mean.
"You can't rely on mutual aid to serve an entire district as large as this," she said. "You can't rely on mutual aid to get there in the time you need them to save a life or keep a structure from being fully involved. This is craziness."
Fight for control
Poquonnock Bridge Fire District covers 12 square miles, including the densely populated Fort Hill neighborhood; the commercial district along Route 1; the Mystic Marriott, Groton's third largest taxpayer; and the majority of town-owned buildings including Town Hall, the police station, Groton Public Library, Groton Senior Center and Fitch High School.
Like many fire districts, Poquonnock Bridge was created years ago as a municipal corporation to fight fires. A special meeting established the district in 1943. A reorganization, to comply with state law, left the district with a five-member board of directors and four officers elected yearly at an annual meeting.
But changes could be made, and they were.
In May of last year, voters at the annual meeting ousted two people, including Ackley, and elected three new members, all firefighters or emergency services workers.
By then, the fire chief and the district's lawyer had started negotiations with the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut. The new president and vice president told them not to go to any more negotiation sessions, Ackley's letter said. On July 18, 2012, the board and union tentatively agreed to the 10-year contract, he wrote.
Thomas Wimler was one of two members who approved the contract in a 2-1 vote. Wimler said he voted yes because he was concerned about long-term stability of the fire department.
"That affects my safety living in this town," he said.
Tax rates in Poquonnock Bridge are higher than in any of the other eight fire districts in Groton. Ackley and his supporters regained control of the board when voters amended the district ordinance on Aug. 1, 2012, to expand the board to nine people. Ackley and businessman Peter Legnos returned to the board along with two others, and the winners began pounding on the issue of lowering taxes.
In his letter to OPM and the attorney general, Ackley wrote that the trouble was "largely caused by a budget vote taken several months ago, where the taxpayers approved a reduced budget of $3.5 million" for the fiscal year that began July 1. The amount was $2.7 million less than the board asked for and $1.2 million less than the previous year's budget.
An ongoing issue
Wimler, the former board member and chief of service for Durham Volunteer Ambulance Corps Inc., said financial problems in Poquonnock Bridge are not new. He said board members had talked about possible layoffs before he was elected more than a year ago. He also said the board was aware of issues with the pensions.
"I don't think it got bad as fast as people think," he said.
In March, an auditor told the district board that it had zero in a fund where it needed $3 million. Total post-employment liabilities as of June 2012 were estimated as underfunded by $11.6 million.
On May 13 of this year, hundreds of people jammed the annual meeting - angry taxpayers on one side and frustrated firefighters and their families on the other.
The public address system failed multiple times. People in the audience shouted that they couldn't hear or didn't know what was going on. Several stormed out swearing. A firefighter could be seen crying in the back of the room after the vote. Police were posted outside.
After the board proposed its budget of $6.2 million, Monteiro proposed $5.5 million and Ackley offered an amendment of $3.5 million. Voters approved it.
Ackley said he thought the $3.5 million figure would be amended, but Monteiro said it couldn't be amended for procedural reasons.
"That makes him sound blameless, and he's not blameless," she said. "He's driving this bus."
Firefighters have said it's Ackley's fault; they accuse him of deliberately trying to bankrupt the district.
Ackley and other board members said that's not true; they said they don't want the district bankrupt, they just want costs kept at a reasonable level.
Paige, the fire chief, said the district has become polarized, but that accomplishes nothing.
"The reality is there's a broken system and we have to fix it," he said. "We have to put emotions aside and bring some civility back into the picture. And bring dialogue."