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Groton files petition in dispute over labor agreement

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published February 14. 2014 4:00AM   Updated February 14. 2014 11:46PM

Groton - The town is petitioning to intervene in the appeal brought by the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District against the state labor board, which had upheld a disputed 10-year labor agreement with the firefighters union.

In its petition, filed Jan. 15 in New Britain Superior Court, the town argues that it has a "direct and substantial interest" in the case because it administers the pension system for firefighters and other employees.

The fire district has been in financial crisis for months and is in danger of running out of money before the end of the fiscal year, June 30. In November, Poquonnock Bridge closed one of its two fire stations and started sending firefighters out in a pickup truck to respond to medical calls and save money on fuel.

Eileen Duggan, the lawyer representing Groton, said the fire district does not have "sole and exclusive control" over the pension system, so any contract changes affecting it should have been submitted to the Town Council for a vote.

She also wrote that the fire district failed to produce an actuarial study outlining costs of proposed changes to the system.

"Without such a study, the town has no knowledge as to the future cost of the retirement plan it administers, which, among other things, negatively impacts the ability to make sound investment decisions related to the same," Duggan said.

The town's petition, while separate from the appeal by the fire district, effectively bolsters the fire district's position that the labor agreement was improperly approved in violation of law and should be thrown out.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for March 11.

The fire district board is fighting because it says it cannot afford a 10-year-union contract upheld by the state Board of Labor Relations. The contract provides annual wage increases of 3 percent, plus additional staffing, increased paid personal leave for firefighters and a boost in benefits for retirees.

If upheld by the court, the board's decision would require the district to comply with an agreement that dates back to July 2012, and pay any back wages and benefits.

"If it comes back that the union gets everything (it) wants, you're going to see an implosion," fire district board member Deb Monteiro said Thursday. Earlier this year, the board met with lawyers to explore whether it had options for declaring bankruptcy.

The union and district board met last month and have another meeting scheduled early next month, Monteiro said.

"I'm somewhat encouraged," she said. "Is there going to be a huge breakthrough? I doubt it. But we're talking. At least, we're talking. But that's the problem. It's just talk. It's not negotiations."

Fire Chief Todd Paige said Thursday the department is spending at a rate that keeps it within the district's budget of $4.6 million, as of the most recent financial documents. He said it would have enough money to get through the fiscal year, but have little or none left over.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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