Sounding the alarm

If Groton were to start from scratch in designing a fire protection system, it would look far different than the current one. The continuing fiscal problems of the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District point to a larger issue, the need for the town to reconsider how it provides overall fire protection.

As in many New England towns, Groton's fire protection service is the product of a reality that no longer exists. Groton has nine fire districts, which developed in its various villages and neighborhoods, the locals paying an added tax for this service.

Though much has changed - firefighting equipment and tactics, the nature of the communities, the competing demands for public services, roads and highways - the districts largely have not. Some of the most intensive development has happened in the district protected by the Poquonnock department.

It has to protect the stretch of commercial properties along Long Hill Road, the densely developed Fort Hill neighborhood of small and older homes, as well as municipal buildings.

Though that commercial tax base and the municipal services benefit all the town, the burden of providing the fire protection falls on homeowners in the district, who pay the highest tax rate among the nine districts. The situation has reached a breaking point, the district's obligations unsustainable over the long term without a large tax increase.

On Thursday, the Fire District Board voted to close one of its two stations, and next Wednesday the board will ask district taxpayers to boost the budget from $3.5 million to $4.6 million to get through the fiscal year, but with no tax increase. Instead, the board will use savings and one-time revenues. That is the definition of a short-term fix and a recipe for future trouble.

Certainly past decisions by the district board play a part in this crisis, approving a 10-year contract with annual increases of 3 percent for firefighters chief among them. That does not change the fact, however, that at some point Groton needs to undertake a comprehensive examination of how it provides and pays for fire protection.

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