All Poquonnock Bridge firefighters to keep jobs for now

Groton - The Poquonnock Bridge Fire District board said Thursday it would not lay off firefighters - at least not at this moment - and called for a special meeting of taxpayers to seek permission to raise its budget from $3.5 million to $4.6 million.

The additional spending would not require a tax increase. Board clerk Nancy Beckwith said this is because the board set the tax rate to collect $3.5 million when taxpayers approved the $3.5 million budget at the annual meeting in May.

However, the fire district has access to other money: Funds left over from last year, PILOT money from the state to protect town-owned property and a small amount in state grants, which together total about $1.1 million, Beckwith said.

Board members had believed they could spend the money as needed but were told by state officials Monday they needed taxpayer approval first, she said.

The special meeting of district taxpayers has been set for 7 p.m. on Oct. 16 in the Groton Senior Center.

"I'm pleased that they made the decision that they did," Fire Chief Todd Paige said after the meeting. "It's still a tough road. There are severe financial challenges. It's just that they're trying to approach them methodically."

Firefighters declined comment after the meeting. Some said they were relieved while others said the situation still looked bad.

Although layoffs did not occur Thursday, the board did not promise they could be avoided indefinitely.

"We're looking to avoid layoffs," board member Gary Bertman told a crowd of about 30 people who had waited for the outcome of a two-hour executive session. "That doesn't mean that may not happen in the future."

The board said it would pay its outstanding bill for fire hydrant rentals. The board also voted Thursday to request a meeting with the town manager and town mayor to discuss the town's obligation to provide fire protection, pensions and the district's financial situation.

Board members did not discuss whether to close one of the district's two fire stations at 13 Fort Hill Road, but Beckwith said that conversation would happen at the next regular board meeting at 7 p.m. on Oct. 10 in the Groton Senior Center. The board also did not make a decision on whether to shut down the box alarm system, which provides a direct link from businesses and fire boxes on the street to dispatchers.

Last week, district board President Alan Ackley sent a letter to surrounding fire districts in town, saying Poquonnock Bridge could be limited in its ability to provide mutual aid after Oct. 1.

The Sept. 18 letter said he hoped the situation would be temporary, but he felt the need to advise other departments so they could make plans.

Board member Ron Yuhas said the board is trying to hold onto jobs.

"I think we've tried to do the right thing," he said.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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