Published July 11. 2013 4:00AM
In the 70 years since Groton's Poquonnock Bridge Fire District was formed, firefighters have put out thousands of blazes at homes, businesses and factories scattered throughout the sprawling section of town - but now residents are struggling to control flames of discontent that have reared up in their own backyard.
The heated debate that has raged for months over the district's finances likely will continue Thursday night when a newly elected board meets at the Fort Hill Station, and judging from recent developments there is little hope tempers will cool among warring factions.
Over the last several months district meetings have degenerated into shouting matches, especially when angry residents slashed the budget in half; the specter of bankruptcy has been raised; there have been threats to shut the department and create a new one; for the first time in memory the department failed to roll out fire trucks during the town's annual Fourth of July parade; taxpayers have asked the Connecticut attorney general to investigate the "legality" of the board's conduct; town officials also are seeking legal advice to determine what authority they have in the matter, if any.
Newly elected board member Deb Monteiro described the situation best: "It's just a mess."
At the heart of the dispute, not surprisingly, is money - to pay for the salaries of professional firefighters (there also are volunteers), the purchase of trucks and other equipment, and the upkeep of two stations. But the issue is more complicated because of Groton's complex government, especially with regard to fire protection.
Since 1957, the Town of Groton has been governed by a Town Council-Town Manager-Representative Town Meeting structure, but the Borough of Groton was incorporated as a subdivision within the town in 1903 (the named was changed to the City of Groton in 1964), to provide its own utilities service and police and fire protection. The City of Groton also has its own council and mayor.
In addition, the Groton Long Point Association was incorporated in 1921 to provide road maintenance and fire and police protection; the Mystic Fire District, divided between Groton and Stonington, was incorporated by the legislature in 1879; the Noank Fire District was established in 1929; the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District was established in 1943 and expanded in area in 1962; the Center Groton Fire District was organized in 1960; the Old Mystic Fire District was established in 1961; the West Pleasant Valley Fire District was established in 1961 and contracts for fire services from the City of Groton.
These districts all control their own budgets for fire protection and effectively run their departments. Separate departments have mutual-aid agreements to help one another in big fires but take pride in being first responders.
Poquonnock Bridge, which contains some of Groton's poorest neighborhoods as well as the town's main commercial district, comprises the largest district. It also has the highest tax rate among all nine fire districts.
Back when many districts were formed, fire departments were neighborhood hubs - hosting holiday parties, sponsoring Little League teams, serving as a gathering place for volunteers.
Over the years that role has diminished and many fire departments, not just in Groton, have struggled to remain active and attract new members.
There have been periodic efforts to have the town take over the Poquonnock Bridge district, or to establish a uniform rate for fire protection among Groton taxpayers, but the ideas never gained political traction.
The last serious discussion took place a decade ago, when a task force was formed to study absorbing the Poquonnock Bridge district into the town. After months of research, the town council voted to drop the idea.
It is now time to reconsider some form of consolidation.
While maintaining individual neighborhood identities is a worthwhile goal, paying for duplicate services - if this proves to be the case - makes no sense.
The town and district must determine how much money would be saved through a takeover and, most important, if such a move would jeopardize public safety by delaying response times.
The town and district already seem to be moving in that direction; this newspaper urges they proceed without delay.