Published September 25. 2013 4:00AM
Groton - After a meeting with the state offered little hope of obtaining bankruptcy protection, the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District Board decided to vote Thursday on calling a special meeting to ask taxpayers for a budget of $4.4 million, more than it has now but not enough to avoid layoffs.
The board's revised agenda for Thursday also calls for a vote on possible layoffs and a request to meet with the town manager and mayor "to discuss the town's statutory obligations to provide fire protection services," among other topics.
The board meets at 6 p.m. Thursday in Groton Senior Center.
On Monday, the fire district filed an administrative appeal in New London Superior Court challenging recent State Board of Labor Relations ruling that ordered the district to honor a 10-year collective bargaining agreement that provides firefighters with annual wage increases of 3 percent and other benefits.
The district also asked the court to "stay," or place on hold, the demand that it comply with the contract within 30 days. That waiting period is nearly over as the decision was issued Aug. 28, but Labor Department spokeswoman Nancy Steffens said the 30-day rule no longer applies once an appeal has been filed.
The administrative appeal was transferred Tuesday from New London to New Britain Superior Court.
Town Mayor Heather Bond Somers said the town has no statutory authority unless the fire district dissolves, and it apparently can't dissolve by filing for bankruptcy.
"I'm not sure how you can file for bankruptcy when you have the ability to levy a tax and get the funds," she said. If the district did dissolve, she said, the town would provide fire coverage but would not necessarily take over the department.
Somers said the town would be happy to help the district work through its financial problems but, she said, the district can't budget less than it needs. "It looks as though the fire district will have to figure out a way to pay its obligations," she said.
Fire district board members disagree as to whether the district may ask for a supplemental tax from residents. The $4 million budget would not require an additional levy; more money than expected was collected under the current tax rate.
The district board's agenda calls for the budget to be discussed in an executive session prior to a public vote.
But Poquonnock Bridge Fire Chief Todd Paige distributed a proposal less than two weeks ago that outlined what a $4.45 million budget could mean. Paige developed the proposal at the board's request, to show the district what would be required to make the money last until the end of the fiscal year.
The proposal would lay off nine firefighters - one-third of the force - and the office clerk for the fire marshal. It would eliminate the fire inspector job, close the fire district's 13 Fort Hill Road station and eliminate the fund balance.
Paige said the $4.45 million scenario would violate the union contract's minimum staffing requirement of five firefighters per shift and would result in longer response times to emergencies.