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Groton — Nearly 100 firefighters and their families from towns as far away as Hartford and Warwick, R.I., marched Thursday night to protest the pending layoff of nine firefighters, or about one-third of the department in Poquonnock Bridge, Groton's largest fire district.
The march, organized by the Poquonnock Bridge Professional Fire Fighters Association, had planned to pack a 7 p.m. meeting of the fire district board, which announced the layoffs June 19. But the meeting was canceled.
Firefighters passed fire district President Alan Ackley's liquor store on the their way from Claude Chester Elementary School parking lot to the Groton Senior Center, with at least two protesters yelling, "Coward! Coward!" Ackley could not be reached Thursday evening.
Union President Kale Kiely said he was notified Thursday afternoon that Ackley had canceled the meeting due to lack of a quorum.
"He doesn't have the spine to stand up and listen to taxpayers and everyone else," Kiely said.
The protest was meant to say layoffs are unacceptable, he said. "Taxpayers and the people that visit our fire district and our firefighters are at severe safety risk. I hope that people see this and they step up," he said.
The layoffs take effect at 8 a.m. July 25.
Fire district board member Ron Yuhas said two board members were out of town, one was sick, one position remains unfilled and the board didn't have a quorum. He said he didn't see the protest.
"I would bet that there weren't too many taxpayers there, but even if there were, 100 isn't very many people" out of 12,000, Yuhas said, referring to the population of the fire district. "It isn't that we're anti-firefighter. The budget was voted in by the taxpayers. That's the situation we're in."
The annual meeting of taxpayers approved a budget of $700,000 less than the previous fiscal year.
But the firefighters union has made the same argument, saying the board is backing a budget supported by about 100 people, which does not represent a majority of residents.
Poquonnock Bridge includes the business strip along Route 1 and the largest amount of town-owned property, including the Town Hall, Groton Town police station, Groton Public Library and the high school. In addition to the nine firefighters, the fire department also has four vacancies that would remain unfilled, raising the staff cuts to 13, or close to 42 percent of the department.
"If they took 40 percent of their income of their household away, would it be a big deal?" said John Mahoney, a firefighter for 20 years from Hartford.
Daniel Tompkins, a firefighter for Groton City, said, "I don't think the public knows what situation they're in and I think they've been misled by the district board. To cut 40 percent of the fire department in my opinion is recklessly dangerous."
Marchers wore bright yellow shirts, except for the nine expected to be laid off, who wore fluorescent green, with a number 1 through 9 to represent where they fell on the layoff list. Firefighters carried signs that read, "A layoff will not payoff when you need us," and "Don't cut safety." Children carried more personal signs, like "Save my uncle's job." Drivers passed the protesters on Newtown Road and waved or honked.
"Hopefully this will bring some awareness to the district," said Damien Speranza, a Poquonnock Bridge firefighter for three years, one of the nine to be laid off. "I don't think people know what's going on. It's a sad situation that affects a lot of people and their safety."
Keith Gomes, a Poquonnock Bridge firefighter for seven years, also on the layoff list, brought his daughter, 13, and son, 14, to the march. He said he doesn't believe layoffs are inevitable, but he told his children he could lose his job.
"As soon as you hear the word 'layoff,' you wonder, 'How am I going to provide for my family? What am I going to do for work?'" he said, adding that firefighting is all he's ever done and what he loves. He said he wanted his children to see fellow firefighters and know that they're not alone.
Chiefs in fire districts surrounding Poquonnock Bridge have said layoffs there would strain other departments and could affect neighboring towns, because fire departments rely on one another for backup and may have to call in help from farther away. Firefighters from departments including Center Groton and Groton City were among those at the protest.
Kiely said the fire district has options. He said it could go back to taxpayers and seek a supplemental appropriation to avoid the layoffs, or find the money elsewhere. He said the town could also step in and create a special taxing district in Poquonnock Bridge, which would effectively take oversight away from the district board.
"They have the ability to take this fire district and bring it in," he said.
Tompkins said all the area fire chiefs are concerned about what's happening in Poquonnock Bridge. "When you have non-fire department people making fire department decisions," he said, "it makes for a bad situation."