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At some point there needs to be a credible solution to the ongoing fiscal crisis confronting the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District in Groton. It will likely include town involvement, a redrawing of fire district lines or both, as the town explores a different approach as to how it provides fire protection.
Suggestions that this paid fire department - responsible for protecting some of the most densely developed areas of the town and critical to its tax base - can return to the bygone days of volunteer service are unrealistic. When disaster strikes, this area needs the immediate response of a full-time staffed department,
Neither can the district pretend it can continue to keep stretching insufficient funding. The burden of paying operating costs for the Poqunnock Bridge Fire District rests with the taxpayers in that district. They have rebelled. The board has set the first district tax rate - layered atop the tax rate set by the town for other services - at 5.9 mills. It should be far higher to meet the need, but taxpayers pushed through a budget of $3.9 million, a reduction of $700,000 from the current budget and maybe half what is needed to meet the district's obligations.
A past board approved a 10-year contract that, beginning in 2012, providing for annual wage increases of 3 percent, while boosting staffing and retirement benefits. The current board is challenging the contract in court, so far without success. The prior board should never have approved such an excessive deal. However, even with a more fiscally reasonable agreement, the district would face financial problems.
The board's latest ideas for surviving on the insufficient funding are unrealistic. They include defaulting on the district's $415,000 payment to the town's pension plan. Also under discussion is the laying off of nine firefighters, one-third of staffing.
Ignoring pension funding obligations is not a solution, just a way to make future problems worse. Laying off nine firefighters will save little, if any money, while raising safety questions. Unemployment payments would eat up much of the savings, as would paying overtime to the remaining officers who would be forced to work longer, more frequent shifts to maintain minimum-staffing requirements.
It is past time to broaden the discussion and include the Town Council in the search for a realistic solution. Poquonnock Bridge can't go on like this.