Before the Monday night Town Hall meeting at the Destin Fire Control District, Commissioner Tommy Green set a few parameters.
"This is not a debate period," he said. "This is a question and answer period. I will not tolerate personal attacks in this meeting. We must conduct ourselves as ladies and gentlemen."
Lieutenant Paramedic, Shaun Myers, began the presentation with hypothetical scenes in which firefighters are needed. When a kitchen fire has erupted and the kids are upstairs, or during a car crash — these things can happen to anyone, Myers said.
"We do more than fight fires," he told the crowd of almost two dozen people.
The second half of the presentation got into the nitty, gritty number crunching. By next year, the commissioners said the Destin Fire Control District will have a budget deficit of over $1 million. To avoid using any more of their reserves, and stay within budget, commissioners said they need to raise the millage rate to 1.12 mils in 2014 and 1.25 in 2015 based on projections.
What some residents seem to object to is the commissioners move to raise the millage cap — not rate — to 3.75, the maximum cap allowed by Florida State Law. That would allow commissioners to hike the millage rate in the future without getting voter approval.
"We all love our firefighters — they do a damn good job," said Dewey Destin, former city councilman and school board member. "But you should've gone to 1.5 or 2.0. It's going to be a real battle."
Destin asked the commissioners if they could turn around and change the May 14 ballot language, but they said it was already too late.
"That's unfortunate," Destin said.
Destin’s comments echoed the general sentiment in the room: "Why raise the cap to 3.75 when all you need is 1.12?"
To that commissioner Jack Wilson answered, "You've got to raise it to something. I feel comfortable saying what's going to happen after two years. After five years, we're reluctant to have any stake in the ground to where it will go."
The commissioners said they've tried to get a cut of the bed tax as well as looking at department costs, but they don't want to take away resources that they need to help firefighters save lives.
"We're not trying to take the money and keep it," Green said. "We can't afford to go out of business in this business."
Some residents who attended took it upon themselves to cut the fire department budget.
Stepping up to the podium, Destin resident Steven Menchel, gave an in-depth suggestion for cutting costs, by using SUVs for medical calls instead of sending fire trucks to each emergency.
During the Q&A period, Teresa Abraham, with a manila folder in hand, said she had done extensive research among the nearby fire districts. Her suggestion was to cut premium benefits firefighters receive such as health insurance and pensions.
Not all residents at the meeting were against the cap raise. For Michelle Stewart, who has firefighter family members locally and across the county, the fire board is doing a good job.
"They cut $1 million, and firemen have taken a pay freeze for five years," she said. "They have gone above and beyond and nobody's giving them any credit."
Mike Buckingham had is own questions for his fellow commissioners. He was the only commissioner on the board who voted against the May 14 referendum in a February meeting.
"How do we know we're $1 million short?" he asked. "[The accountant] said we were financially sound. What have we done to cut the budget?"
Resident Robert Wagner was also concerned that with the cap set at the state's maximum limit, a new set of commissioners could come in and jack up the millage rate to 3.75 at any time.
"We want to support you, but for a reasonable amount," he said.
The commissioners, one resident said, should've had a meeting before they made any decisions.
"I heard loud and clear you do not want the 3.75 cap, but you also don't want any cut in services," said commissioner Rick Moore.
"It's not what we want, it's what we need," Green told the crowd. "What I misjudged, was your faith in us."