Facing a "million-dollar-problem," Fire Commissioner Jack Wilson says there are options to save money at the Destin Fire Control District, but none of them are ideal.
"We can look at our costs and say 'OK, let's cut 15 people,' " he told The Log Monday. "Then we have to figure out how to run a department with 15 less people."
As part of a May 14 referendum, the district will ask voters in Destin for permission to raise its milage cap from 1.0 mils to 3.75 mills in a move that fire officials say offers them flexibility to run the district at the necessary levels while maintaining the current level of service.
To hold the budget flat for the next two years, according to the district, they would need to raise the millage rate to 1.12 mils in 2014 and 1.25 mils in 2015, based on projections. Wilson said it would take a unanimous vote by the board of fire commissioners to raise the millage rate to the max level of 3.75.
"What was the vote on the referendum?" he said. "It was 4-1, that wasn't even unanimous."
Commissioner Mike Buckingham cast the lone no vote during the board's Feb. 26 meeting. Based on the meeting's minutes, Buckingham "had concerns about the amount of money shown in reserves for equipment and then asking the public to vote for a millage increase."
The minutes show that there is $2.5 million available in reserves for assets. Even if the district were to purchase two engines, according to the minutes, there would be $1.8 million remaining that Buckingham suggested the district use, instead of raising rates on residents.
While on vacation, Buckingham told The Log via text message that his job is to look out for the taxpayers, while providing the firefighters the tools they need to do their jobs.
"One hundred percent of this tax increase the union is pushing is proposed to spend on more salaries and benefits, which we can't afford right now," he wrote.
For the upcoming year, the fire district is looking at a roughly $1 million shortfall, which could be partially offset by the district's undesignated reserves. Currently, they have about $600,000 available, but that would still leave them roughly $400,000 shy of a balanced budget.
Looking at some of the issues facing the district, Wilson told The Log that their budget has increased by 5.5 percent from 2006 to present, while their revenue from ad valorem taxes has decreased by 19.5 percent. All the while, the district's call volume has increased by 12 percent.
The district was able to absorb the additional costs from 2006 until now, due to a healthy reserve base, but that's no longer the case.
"How did that little miracle happen?" Wilson said. "We got a little help from the city and the TDC and we ate up all of our reserves; it's that simple."
Annually, the city of Destin and the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council contribute funds to the fire district to help fund the beach safety program.
Looking at the district's budget, its biggest expense is personnel costs, which total $4,151,580 for the current year. That number represents the majority of the district's current $5,720,416 budget.
With available reserves running low, and already having scoured over the numbers line-by-line, Fire Chief Kevin Sasser and Wilson say they have exhausted all options to cut, with the exception of personnel.
"We could ask our staff to take a 23 percent pay cut," Wilson said. "As soon as we start talking about cutting heads and pay cuts, we will have resumes flying all over South Walton."
If they choose, Wilson said the district could also cut back on the advanced life support services it offers, which could mean the difference between life and death in some cases. By eliminating this service, he said they would probably be able to get rid of the medical division chief position and save on the "paramedic premium," which is paid to firefighters that have special training.
"I know in my heart that's not what people want," he said. "If you pull advanced life support off of our trucks, you are basically taking emergency response out of the south of the county."
While it's too early to speculate, it's possible that cuts in personnel could be made to the district's beach safety program. Although it would be an unpopular decision, Wilson said the district could save money, but they would ultimately be "putting people at risk."
"We are fire rescue," he said. "But when we look at it, the beach is going to get the short end of that. Right now it would be foolish of us to cut the beach."
Destin resident Bob Wagner, who has said he may run for the fire commission, told The Log Tuesday that he does not want to see the district cut services or employees, but he also doesn't want commissioners to have a "blank check" to do how they deem necessary.
"I wouldn't mind the 1.25 (mils) for now," he said. "The commissioners could then come back in five or six months if they needed to adjust it."
For residents that agree with Wagner, he is asking them to call him at 850-499-4104, so he can present a list of those opposed to the referendum to the commissioners.
"The commissioners had the chance to set the millage rate at what they needed, but they chose to set it where they wanted, and now they have to suffer the consequences," he added. "The chance for abuse is too great."
Pension: generous or necessary?
As the district prepares for the upcoming referendum,The Log has received phone calls and emails about the district's new "20 years and out" pension program. Basically, the district converted to a retirement program that saved them money, Wilson told The Log.
"What we changed from was an age, 56, to 20 years of service," he said. "At 20 years of service, someone will have accrued a pension credit for 70 percent of their compensation."
There is also a 2 percent cost of living increase included in the plan after the first year of retirement, which was a compromise with the current firefighters in return for agreeing to a five-year wage freeze.
For the current fiscal year, the pension plan will cost the district about $973,920, Sasser said. As part of the pension plan, firefighters must contribute 6.8 percent of their own pay.
In order for a firefighter to receive 100 percent of their pay as part of the new pension plan, Sasser said they would have to serve the district for 28.5 years. The final amount they would receive as pension would be based on an average of the five highest paying years out of the last 10 they worked.
The current pension plan, which was negotiated five to six years ago, only applies to current firefighters.
"The next group of people we hire, when we are able to hire, or if people retire and we decide to fill those positions, they will not have the 20 and out," Sasser said. "That was part of the agreement."
"Those that are currently working here have earned a certain benefit and we can't take that away from them," he added.
In Destin, the starting salary for a firefighter is $37,000 and the average firefighter at the district makes an average salary of $65,000. There are currently 36 "line firefighters," but only 33 of those men do shift work, which equals 11 firefighters per shift.
And while the pension plan sounds relatively generous, Wilson made sure to tell The Log that the cost of medical insurance was not included into those figures. He also said that a lot of the firefighters in Destin work second jobs as well.
Tough decisions for voters, commissioners
After scouring the budget for every cut possible, Wilson said there are some opportunities for the district to possibly save some funds in the future.
One idea is for the district to look at ways they can reduce costs for responding to medical calls, which he said are about 70 percent of the calls that come in.
"If there is a way to combine the operation of those two entities (fire and ambulance) that is more cost effective and a better service to our taxpayers, we ought to be sorting that out," he said.
The May 14 referendum will come before voters as a special election and that will be the sole item on the ballot. Sasser said the cost of the special election alone, between $10,000-$15,000, is part of the reason why the district decided to pursue the maximum allowable millage so they didnít have to come before voters to ask for a potential increase annually, if needed.
Whether voters are in favor of raising the milage cap or not, Sasser said the district will move forward.
"It's either they are willing to pay a little more to continue with the service we have or they are not and the board will have to make some tough decisions," he said. "The board is willing to make those decisions."
TOWN HALL SET
As part of an "educational" process, the district is holding town hall meetings and inviting the public to come out and learn about what the district does, how it operates and what the proposed referendum means to them. A town hall meeting will be held April 1 at 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Station 9, 848 Airport Road. Presentations will be made at the top of each hour. For more information about the meeting call 850-837-8413.
Before the district moves forward, Sasser told The Log he wanted to allow the public to have a say in how they proceed.
"We're hoping to talk to as many people as possible," he said. "We want to make sure that we educate and explain the issue to our electorate so they can make an informed decision."