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Groton - Taxpayers in the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District will vote Wednesday on a proposed $6.36 million budget, and the fight on both sides is intensifying.
Outside Ackley's Package Store on Fort Hill Road, a banner reads: "Vote No To Fire Tax Increase May 28th."
"How else am I going to get people to vote the budget down?" said Alan Ackley, owner of store and president of the fire district board. Ackley said he never supported the budget but felt forced legally to approve it due to a 10-year labor contract, now being disputed in court.
Board Member Kenneth Richards III said the sign is inappropriate. "I think it's uncalled for," he said. "He's the president of the district, and should try to at least remain neutral."
The budget would raise the district tax rate from 5.2 mills to 9.5 mills, or about 82 percent. The owner of a home valued at the Poquonnock Bridge median of $100,100 would pay $950.95 annually in fire district taxes. One mill is equal to $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessed value.
Retired Fire Marshal Adam Wojtcuk said the district cut the department for so long it caught up with them, and likened it to a homeowner who would eventually face a large repair bill if they didn't maintain their home. In this case, though, he said there's more to lose.
"It's more than numbers. There are people's lives at stake," he said.
Poquonnock Bridge closed one of its two firehouses last year and started using a pickup truck to respond to medical calls. Both changes would remain under the proposed budget to pay for other liabilities.
The fire department also has no working ladder truck. District firefighters are responsible for the business strip on Route 1, town-owned buildings and multi-story apartment complexes like The Ledges, where some third-floor apartments are six stories off the ground depending on slope, Wojtcuk said. Poquonnock Bridge engines carry ladders of 24 feet, or two stories, and rely on mutual aid for a ladder truck, he said.
"It's irresponsible to not have a working ladder truck and expect somebody else to provide that for you," Wojtcuk said.
Taxpayers will determine a budget, decide whether to incorporate volunteers into the department and elect three members to the district board at the annual fire district meeting at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at the Groton Senior Center. Registration begins at 6 p.m. Three seats on the nine-member board, now held by treasurer Thomas Santacroce and directors Richards and Deborah Monteiro, are up for re-election.
Other candidates are expected to challenge the three incumbents on Wednesday.
Ackley said voting during the annual meeting will work this way: Taxpayers will approve or reject the proposed budget first, then vote on any amended figures. Lawyer Glenn Carberry will moderate the meeting.
Richards said the fire district's problems built for years while people ignored and blamed each other. They should work together, he said.
"This district needs to stop all the bickering, and stop wasting time on personal agendas and fix our mess before the town or state gets involved making it potentially worse for the taxpayer," he said.