Groton must address fire district crisis

If the lavish 10-year contract with its firefighters' union stands, it is hard to see how taxpayers in Groton's Poquonnock Bridge Fire District can afford to continue paying for the operation of the fire service.

The fire district board this week voted to meet the salary demands of the disputed 2012 contract even as the litigation challenging it continues. The result is that the budget jumps 41 percent, from the current $4.6 million to $6.5 million. The fire-district tax rate goes from 5.2 mills to 9.5 mills, a tax property owners must pay in addition to town tax, now 20.72 mills. The proposed rate is nearly triple that of the second most costly fire district tax in the town, the 3.5 mills paid in the Center Groton Fire District.

The Poquonnock Bridge board did not finalize the budget. It next meets at 6:30 p.m. on April 22 at the Groton Senior Center. In what promises to be another tumultuous annual district meeting, taxpayers will get the chance to act on the budget May 14. The board has not set the time and location.

For the last year, the district has muddled through on a budget that did not truly reflect the cost of fire services. It did not adhere to salary and staff requirements in the disputed contract, it closed one of its two fire stations, and used a pickup truck to respond to medical calls. This time the board is proposing a budget that better aligns with what actual costs may well be.

It seems outrageous the district could be stuck with a contract that was rammed through during the brief time that a board, predisposed to offering Local 2704 a sweetheart deal, held control. The deal contains annual 3 percent raises, boosts the starting firefighter salary from $52,700 to $70,000 by 2021, mandates additional staffing, and increases retiree benefits as well.

The deal so outraged district taxpayers, they ousted the board leaders who approved the contract. But the State Board of Labor Relations found the contract binding and the court challenge drags on. The state Freedom of Information Commission concluded the meeting at which the contract was approved was legal under the provisions of the state's open government law.

The town has attempted another legal tactic, pointing out that it administers the pension system for firefighters and district employees. Because of that fact, the contract needed Town Council approval, the town has argued in its request to intervene in the case.

Yet there is a very real possibility the contract will stand. And given what a great contract it is for the union members, they have little incentive to reopen it.

Even if the court finds in the district's favor and tosses out the contract, leading to a more reasonable deal, taxpayers in the Poquonnock Bridge district will continue to face a disproportionate burden in providing fire protection.

The Poquonnock department must protect the stretch of commercial properties along Long Hill Road, small and older homes in the densely developed Fort Hill neighborhood, and 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 and businesses in the district.

At some point Groton leaders have to consider a more complicated and politically difficult solution that equitably spreads the burden of fire protection among all property owners. This could mean reconfiguring fire districts, or finding a taxing mechanism to spread costs fairly.

The situation in the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District is a problem quickly changing into a crisis, one that the Town Council and the greater community cannot ignore.

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