Controversial Poquonnock Bridge Fire District budget soon to be in voters' hands

Groton — Pete Chappell, who owns a business and a home in Poquonnock Bridge, said he can't afford increased fire district taxes, but he also believes the increase is misunderstood.

The proposed annual fire district tax rate in Poquonnock Bridge - 9.5 mills - would cost the owner of a home with the district's median value of $100,100 $950.95 per year.

Chappell will attend the annual meeting to find out what's going on, he said. He doesn't know yet how he will vote.

Poquonnock Bridge's Fire District Board on Tuesday approved a budget of about $6.36 million for the coming fiscal year, which would raise the district tax rate from 5.2 mills to 9.5 mills. One mill is equal to $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessed value.

Fire district President Alan Ackley said he had to approve the budget even though he doesn't support it. He said the district had no choice because it's awaiting a court decision on a disputed 10-year labor contract with the firefighters' union and could lose that battle.

"As a taxpayer, I'm totally against this budget, but, unfortunately, I'm legally bound to do it," he said.

The head of the union, Kale Kiley, meanwhile has refused to offer any public comment.

Ackley and the union leadership have been feuding for a year over issues that have affected the department's finances and operations.

Taxpayers must set the coming year's budget at an annual meeting by the end of May. The date, time and place of the meeting have not been set.

Ackley said a lawyer will preside over the meeting, which last year turned into an ugly scene in which people yelled, swore and stormed out. This year, residents will vote the proposed budget up or down, then consider amended figures if needed, Ackley said.

District board member Deborah Montiero said she believes the budget proposal could have been lower. It includes money for volunteer training and uniforms and $1 million for post employment health and life insurance benefits, she said. These amounts could have been reduced to make the budget more palatable, she said.

The proposed district spending plan would meet the obligations of the disputed 10-year union contract if the fire district board loses its case. The Connecticut State Board of Labor Relations recently reaffirmed its decision that the contract stands, so a Superior Court judge must decide the outcome. The Town of Groton has petitioned to intervene in the appeal, but the judge hasn't decided what extent to allow.

The proposed spending plan would maintain cuts to the fire district that have been in place since last year. The Fort Hill Station would remain closed. Firefighters would continue to respond to medical calls using a pickup truck rather than an engine.

Chris Stearns, a volunteer with the Old Mystic Fire Department, said he believes this shouldn't be done.

"If they're on a medical call and come across an accident or a fire, now what? I've got to call mutual aid or go back to (the station) to get an engine? That shouldn't be," he said. "That should not be out on the road."

One firefighter and the fire marshal retired in the last year, but there will be no new hires.

Board member Ron Yuhas said he believes the district should include $1 million for post-employment benefits; otherwise it's digging itself more of a hole. But it's the taxpayers' decision, he said.

"If the town people hoot and holler and there's no money for it, there's no money for it," he said.

Taxpayers last year authorized $614,000 to buy a replacement pumper truck, but the money was not spent. It remains in a capital reserve fund, Fire Chief Todd Paige said. The district has five years to spend money on capital projects.

Paige said the district didn't know last year whether it would have firefighters to assign to an engine due to its financial crisis.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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