Heed the alarm

It is a sign of some progress that members of the Groton Town Council see the need to begin a discussion with the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District Board about the fiscal crisis confronting the district.

Fire District board member Ron Yuhas, speaking to the Town Council Tuesday during the public comment portion of the meeting, raised questions about the inherent unfairness of the way the town provides a most fundamental public service - fire protection.

The job of fire protection is left to individual fire districts. They operate within boundaries created when Groton was far less developed and volunteers could more readily be found because most men worked in or near town. If starting from scratch, the organization of the town's fire protection would look much different. It likely would be centralized, the burden equally shared by all taxpayers.

Instead, those living in the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District pay a much higher fire protection tax, $826 on a home assessed at $200,000 - more than double any other fire district in town. And it's still not enough to provide adequate service. The district board recently announced a plan to lay off nine firefighters. The union has filed a legal challenge, contending the reduced staffing would violate the contract and endanger firefighter and public safety.

Certainly some of this is the fault of how the district has organized and compensated its fire service, providing an all-paid department with an attractive contract. But it is also a district that has to protect the majority of town-owned buildings, all of them tax-exempt, and which has responsibility for a large commercial district.

The district's problems are the town's problems. With the proposed staff cuts, a greater burden will fall on surrounding districts to provide backup support. If deep staff cuts lead to the loss of life in a fire, Groton as a whole will have to answer as to how it let that happen.

On Tuesday, Councilor Joe de la Cruz, who lives in the district, said council members need to be part of the discussion, while Councilor Genevieve asked for more information. Perhaps the council is finally moving past its head-in-the-sand approach and recognizing it needs to get involved in trying to find solutions.

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