Given decreased property values and budget shortfalls, the Destin Fire Control District will ask voters for permission to raise its milleage rate to the maximum level allowed by state law.
"It allows the (Board of Fire Commissioners) the ability to operate the district in a way that meets the need of the citizens," Fire Chief Kevin Sasser told The Log Thursday. "It doesn't mean that the board will go up to the maximum cap, but it gives them flexibility."
As it currently stands, the district's millage rate is capped at 1.0 mills, based on its charter. During a May 14 special election, the district will ask Destin residents, through a referendum, whether or not they would support raising the millage cap from 1.0 mills to 3.75 mills.
The ballot referendum will be titled "Change in Destin Fire Control District Millage Cap to 3.75 mills." The language will read: "To operate and maintain the Destin Fire Control District's current facilities, fire rescue, advanced life support and beach rescue services for the citizens of the district, shall the district be allowed to change the millage cap from the current rate of 1.0 mills, approved in 1971, to 3.75 mills as authorized by Chapter 191, Florida Statute. Your elected commissioners set the millage rate annually, which determines the rate you pay, during publicly open budgeting processes."
Sasser told The Log that a majority of the other professional fire districts in southern Okaloosa County have set their millage caps to 3.75. The actual millage rates set by those districts range from 2.0 to 3.1 mills, he said.
Given the decline in property values over the past few years, Sasser said the district had been using funds from its reserves to help balance the budget.
But, according to a letter from board Chairman Tommy Green, the district's remaining contingency funds will only cover a portion of the projected shortfall for the upcoming budget year and would be "completely expended" by the following year.
"To continue to provide existing services while holding the budget flat for the next two years would require a millage rate for 2014 of approximately 1.12 mills and 1.25 mills in 2015, based on the best projections available for property tax valuations," he wrote. "As the public record shows, at no time, has the commission considered raising the millage rate above these levels."
But not everyone is so sure. Bob Wagner, who is considering running for the commission, wrote a letter to The Log saying: “I understand that the current millage rate has been in effect since 1971 and some change may be needed. However, to ask the taxpayers of Destin to accept the maximum millage rate increase by law and not the 1.25 rate that is needed to balance the budget shows a lack of fiscal responsibility for our money.”
But Sasser told The Log that the only options they have to balance the budget are either reducing services throughout the district or asking to increase the millage rate.
"Our citizens have become accustomed to a certain level of service, and we don't want to reduce that, if possible," he said.
Given the proposed 1.12 mills that the district would potentially operate under for 2014, Sasser said it would only represent a $12 increase per $100,000 of property values.
The referendum will give the district an idea of where residents stand, Sasser said. The district is also scheduling open house meetings with residents that would like to discuss the proposed referendum. To inquire about meetings, call the fire district at 850-837-8413.
At the end of the day, Sasser told The Log the district would continue to offer the best services possible, regardless of the outcome of the referendum.
"We'd like for them to vote yes, but if they vote no, that's OK too," he said. "We are just trying to avoid a reduction in services we offer."