Tuesday is the last chance for voters to take to the polls and voice their opinion on the Destin Fire Control District's proposed millage cap increase.
"It all comes down to the voters and whether they want to vote for this or not," said Tommy Green, chairman of the district's board of fire commissioners. “As a board, we voted to put this out to the public and let them make the decision. I encourage them all to make an educated decision, whether it's for or against this."
At the heart of the matter is a May 14 referendum in which the district will ask voters to approve an increase in the millage cap from 1.0 to 3.75. Commissioners have said they have no plans to raise the rate to 3.75, the maximum allowable level under state statutes.
Increasing the millage cap is needed to offset budget shortfalls due to decreasing property values, fire officials say. Opponents of the referendum argue that by allowing the commission to increase its millage cap to the max, taxpayers are opening their wallets and issuing the district a "blank check."
Mike Buckingham was the only one to vote against the proposal to raise the millage cap back in February.
“What bothers me the most is that they went for the 3.75 instead of 1.50," Buckingham said.
To read more about the referendum, click here
The final meeting before the vote
During their regular meeting Tuesday night, fire control district commissioners opened the floor to those in attendance to talk about the proposed millage cap increase.
Destin resident and retired firefighter Shayne Stewart was the only one to speak. Stewart, who had served for 30 years, told board members that "it's difficult, at best, to garner trust," but he voted for commissioners to be the "steward" of his tax dollars.
"It took us 41 years to top our millage rate," he said. "I trust you to do the right thing. If this passes, I trust you to keep the rate as low as possible. I know what I benefit, what my family benefits from the fire district."
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.
By next year, the commissioners said the district will have a budget deficit close to $1 million.
Commissioner Jack Wilson said that increasing rates at Destin Water Users and the unforeseen costs of Obamacare are adding to the uncertainty at the fire district.
"The costs are outside our control," he said. "The last three years we've had to dip into reserves. It hasn't gone away in two years and we're going to run out of reserves."
Since the referendum was voted on and approved by the fire commission (4-1), Buckingham has been somewhat outspoken on the topic. He said his original intention was to inform citizens, but he has taken a more active approach against the referendum as of late, after he said a threat was made against his family.
Facing the shortfall, Buckingham said the district was presented with two options to address the budget concerns. The first would have been to raise the millage cap and the other to charge a "flat rate" fee of $35 on every piece of property in the district.
"Can you imagine how many people would rather pay a flat fee than increase the millage cap," he said.
But Green maintains the district is running out of options. He told The Log Friday morning that there are enough reserves in the bank to get the district through the upcoming budget cycle, but those reserves wouldn't be there the year after. Also, a portion of the district's reserves are from impact fees and can only be used in very specific ways, which is not to helping to balance the budget, Green said.
"We're getting down to where there is not a lot left," he said.
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.
As for cutting personnel or services, Green, who is in his fourth term as a commissioner, said making dramatic cuts is the last thing the district wants to do.
"That's not a plan," he said, adding that talks of possible cuts to staff were discussed during the district's five-year planning process.
For Green, the millage cap increase is more about continuing the services that Destin residents have been accustomed to over the years, such as advanced life support and medical, which are not required under state law.
"We don't want to lose those services," he said. "If you are just looking at tomorrow, then you are going to mess up. I want to look at the future, what's going to happen five or ten years down the road."
With the final voting day just a few days away, Buckingham said he encourages Destin residents to make an informed decision, and to not base their vote on the information provided by the firefighter’s union, which has been hanging informational cards on door knobs around town.
"I have a real hard time with this campaign being run by the union," he said. "They are not telling the whole truth to the taxpayer. The commission hasn't given them any of the numbers they are using."
As a final thought on the matter, Buckingham summed it up simply — "vote no."
Early voting wrapped up Friday at City Hall, and Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux told The Log Friday morning that he was pleased with the number of voters that had come out ahead of Election Day.
"We exceeded 100 people a day, on average," he said. "For an election of this size and scale, that's a fantastic turnout."
Polls are open to voters in all five Destin precincts and includes those within the city limits of Destin and those in unincorporated Okaloosa County.
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.
Stay tuned to thedestinlog.com Tuesday night for results.
Destin Log reporter Jennie McKeon contributed to this story.