Published June 24. 2014 4:00AM
Poquonnock Bridge firefighters were willing to accept shorter deal, cut minimum staffing
Groton - The president of the Poquonnock Bridge firefighters' union says the union offered concessions to the district board over the disputed 10-year contract but the board rejected them.
Poquonnock Bridge Professional Fire Fighters Association President Kale Kiely said in an open letter that the union offered to reduce the contract by five years so it would end in July 2017; cut its minimum staffing from six firefighters per shift to the current five per shift; eliminate a lieutenant's position and remove the cost-of-living increase for retirees.
"These changes would address the major factors that the district board was concerned with," Kiely wrote. "The district refused to accept this offer."
District Board President Alan Ackley could not be reached for comment Monday.
Board member Ron Yuhas said he attended the session in which the contract was discussed and negotiations were not meant to be made public.
"There were a few things still holding up the bargaining in my eyes," he said.
The concessions would not solve the district's immediate financial crisis because Poquonnock Bridge is using the old contract and yet cannot pay the salaries and benefits for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Taxpayers in May approved a budget of $3.9 million for the coming fiscal year, $700,000 less than the district had this fiscal year.
On July 19, the district board laid off nine firefighters - 36 percent of the department - and Fire Chief Todd Paige said the department would need help dealing with basic emergency calls.
Firefighters were given a 30-day notice before layoffs go into effect next month.
Yuhas said the board had no choice, and will formally notify neighboring fire departments shortly of the district's need for aid.
The layoff of nine of 25 firefighters is in addition to four vacancies in the department. Poquonnock Bridge also employs a chief and fire inspector.
"Eliminating 13 positions from a 31-member department is dangerously irresponsible," Kiely wrote. "Residents need to know that the ability to extinguish fires, rescue trapped occupants, render emergency medical service and numerous other services provided by the fire department have been seriously compromised."
The union has also had to be the "watchdog" for the taxpayers, he wrote. The union has fought with the district for years over issues like running fire engines overdue for repair or replacement and failing to replace the ladder truck, so firefighters can't reach anyone over two stories, the letter said.
Kiely also said the union fought with the district over abolishing fire prevention programs and an attempt to get rid of the box alarm system, the system of red boxes that can be pulled to send a direct signal to the fire department.
Poquonnock Bridge is the largest fire district in Groton and covers 12,000 residents, the business strip along Route 1 and town-owned property, including Groton Town Hall, the Town Hall Annex, Groton Public Library, the town police station, the senior center, an elementary school and the high school.
The department is responsible for protecting more than $704 million of commercial, residential and municipal property based on 2012 figures, Kiely wrote. The layoffs have other costs; one of the nine firefighters to lose his job prepared four federal and private grants that saved taxpayers $1.2 million in safety equipment and federally mandated communication upgrades, he said.
"These firefighters slated to be laid off are not simply numbers as the district board would have people believe," Kiely said. "They are husbands, fathers, taxpayers, coaches, volunteers; they are an integral part of our community."