The Destin Fire Control District special election will be a test case for early voting in Destin.
"We're kind of floating this as a trial to see how it works and if people would take advantage of it," Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux told The Log Tuesday.
Election Day is May 14, but early voting will be open from May 6 - May 10 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Destin City Hall, 4200 Indian Bayou Trail. Voters are required to show photo and signature identification.
While early voting is something that Okaloosa County residents are accustomed to as part of the voting process, residents in Destin haven't had a location where they could register their votes prior to the actual polls opening. Early voting locations are staples in Fort Walton Beach, Crestview and as of late in Niceville.
Lux said that setting up an early voting location is relatively expensive, as costs can be anywhere between $25,000-$30,000 to mobilize equipment. Additionally, the elections office must pay for staffers to work the polling station.
This particular election would cost less since the election's office would use a single staffer who lives in Destin to run the operation. Lux told The Log that the elections office gave the district a "good faith" estimate of roughly $10,000 to cover the costs associated with the special election.
If the district hadn't tied the referendum to a special election, they would have had to wait until the March 2014 municipal election in Destin.
If all goes well, Lux said he would like to have a permanent location in Destin for early voting in the future. In other states, "vote centers" are popping up. These centers are not split by precincts, so voters can go to the closest polling location for both early voting and on Election Day.
As his equipment begins to wear down, Lux said he would ideally like to open a vote center as opposed to replacing his equipment, but "this year was not the time for that discussion."
While a voting center may be years away, having a location in Destin for early voting is much more feasible option in the short term. Early voting will also be available in Destin as part of the March 2014 elections.
"It's a convenience for residents," Lux said. "We want to see how this goes and if there is a demand."
Lux told The Log that he would guess for a voter turnout of roughly between 20-25 percent, but it would only be a guess since he has no historical data to compare it to.
"We don't do elections like these (single item) very often," he said.
The last single item ballot, according to Lux, was in 2007, which was also a fire referendum conducted by the Baker Fire District. This particular vote garnered a 26 percent turnout rate, but that number may not reflect what to expect in Destin, as the Baker vote was mail-based.
In Destin, the supervisor of elections said that the return rate of absentee ballots could be a potential early indication of the end turnout rate. With more than 1,500 absentee ballots sent out, Lux said just shy of 400 have been returned, for a 23 percent return.
The Supervisor of Elections office offers three ways to vote for the upcoming special election — early voting, vote by mail and voting at the polls.
Voters can request absentee ballots by telephone, email, and mail in person or by visiting www.govote-okaloosa.com. Absentee ballots must be returned to the elections office by 7 p.m. on Election Day. The last day to request a ballot to be mailed to you is May 8.
Polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Election Day, May 14. Voters must place their vote at their designated polling precinct. For more information visit www.govote-okaloosa.com or call 850-689-5600.
Destin precincts are:
20: (West Destin) Destin Community Center, 101 Stahlman Avenue.
35 and 44: (North and Central Destin) Destin United Methodist Church, 200 Beach Drive.
49 and 50: (East and South Destin) Destin City Hall Annex, 4100 Indian Bayou Trail.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
When voters take to the polls, they will be voting on a referendum from the Destin Fire Control District asking them to approve an increase in the district's millage cap. Currently, the district's millage rate is capped at 1.0 mills, but if the referendum were approved, the district would be capped at the state maximum 3.75 mills.
Fire Chief Kevin Sasser says the district has no plans to raise its millage rate to the max level, but only to the level needed to offset a roughly million-dollar shortfall. The fire district maintains that unless voters approve the measure, all employees face across the board compensation cuts of 18 percent or 15 employees will lose their jobs. They add that response times will be “compromised" and firefighters will be in increased danger.
Those on the other side of the issue have said they are unwilling to give the fire district a "blank check" when it comes to the millage rate. In a column that appeared in The Log, current Fire Commissioner Mike Buckingham wrote "This tax increase will not be used to raise the level of service or purchase more equipment. If the voters approve, it will be spent for even higher salaries and benefits — and that’s not justifiable in these tough economic conditions."
One mill equals $1 for every $1,000 of taxable property value. So, if your home is valued at $100,000, you currently pay $100 in taxes.