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Groton - The Poquonnock Bridge Fire District can't pay its firefighters' salaries for another year. The district wants to bring in volunteers, but the atmosphere is so tense that the board, union and firefighters can hardly converse.
The district has a 99-year lease on a fire station it's not using except for one office, but the board isn't sure yet how to get out of the lease. The board is also fighting a 10-year labor contract in court. Meanwhile, it can't cover the costs of the old union contract. Bills are overdue.
"I don't see any options except layoffs," Board President Alan Ackley said Thursday.
Taxpayers approved a budget of $3.9 million for the coming fiscal year at the fire district's annual meeting on Wednesday - $700,000 less than the district has now. Fire Chief Todd Paige said he needed $4.7 million to run the district at the absolute minimum.
Dealing with $3.9 million instead won't be as easy as people think, Paige said.
"Every option's going to have a consequence. In other words, if you lay somebody off, you have to pay unemployment tax," he said. If the district has fewer firefighters, it won't meet minimum staffing requirements per shift under the union contract and will end up fighting a legal battle, Paige said.
Legal fees have skyrocketed in recent years.
The district spent $5,600 on legal fees in 2010, $12,000 in 2011 and $84,000 in 2012, according to information provided at the annual meeting.
The union contract calls for a minimum of five firefighters in Poquonnock Bridge per shift. "There's no way we're going to be able to maintain that," Ackley said, adding that the district board planned to contact the state - possibly the Office of Policy and Management - to explain its financial situation.
"Reorganization, I think, is what is going to come about," he said. "Now, whether we're able to do that by state law or some higher authority I don't know, but having a combination department that's run totally different than has been done in the past is the way to go."
Ronald Johnson, one of two new members elected to the board of directors Wednesday, said the biggest challenge will be setting up for volunteers, but it can be done. Johnson takes office July 1 and belongs to the Poquonnock Bridge Volunteer Fire Department, which is currently not active but once operated out of the Fort Hill station. He said he has already started planning.
"It's going to be a long process. It's not going to be something that's going to happen tomorrow. But everything is going to be done, and done right," he said.
Ackley said the voters spoke at the meeting, endorsed an effort to recruit and train volunteers, and the future of Poquonnock Bridge is a combination career and volunteer department.
"We have to meet fairly quickly, within the next couple of weeks, and start looking to create a budget that uses the $3.9 million in whatever way it works," he said. "There's only so much money.
"If the union would like to meet with us to prevent layoffs, then naturally, we'd be happy to sit down with them. Because in order to spend only $3.9 million, the savings has to be incredible."
The board eliminated Fire Inspector Kale Kiely's job in its budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Kiely is president of the firefighters union.
Ackley said Kiely would have to return to the rank and file or apply for the job of fire marshal. Fire Marshal Adam Wojtcuk retired in April, and his job has not been filled.
Paige said he understands that taxpayers see a volunteer department as less expensive, but Poquonnock Bridge already effectively has a combination department by working with Noank, Old Mystic and Center Groton, for example. The district would be better off building those volunteer departments than trying to build its own from scratch, he said.
"We work very closely with our mutual aid departments. And it's free," he said. "I would propose that they enhance those relationships and build upon that system. But basically my thoughts are being ignored."
The district may also hear this summer the outcome of the court decision on the disputed 10-year labor contract. A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 12 in New Britain Superior Court.