Fire Commissioners at the Destin Fire Control District hope the second time is the charm as they will ask voters to increase the tax rate for the second consecutive year.
"We're coming back and asking for what we need to cover our current budget," Fire Commissioner Mike Buckingham told The Log. "We heard over and over again that we had to make some cuts before coming back and asking for this, and that's what we did."
Currently capped at 1.0 mils, the district will ask voters to increase the millage rate to 1.145 mils, which will help offset a roughly $485,508 budget shortfall.
Last year, the district asked voters to approve a referendum item that would have given them the authority to raise the millage cap to the max of 3.75 mills. The measure was resoundingly shot down by Destin's voters — 80.7 percent to 19.3 percent.
Both Buckingham and Fire Chief Kevin Sasser say the increase is necessary so the district can continue to operate at a level Destin residents have come to expect, without having to make cuts to the actual first responders on the trucks.
In order to help alleviate some of the budget constraints the district is facing, a decision was made to eliminate an administrative assistant position, which was replaced with a part time receptionist, and the medical division chief position, which was held by Phil Metz. The district will save more than $125,000 annually with the cuts.
"We did lose a good man," Buckingham said.
Looking at areas to cut, Sasser said the district didn't have many options outside of personnel, which accounts for about 80 percent of the district's total $5.8 million budget. Without cutting firefighters, Sasser said the only personnel cuts could have come from seven positions, which include the fire chief, the administrative assistant, the fire marshal, the building inspector, the financial administrator, the medical division chief, or the beach safety chief.
"You have to have a fire chief, an inspector, a fire marshal, beach safety, and a financial person," Buckingham said.
"We eliminated two out of the seven possibilities," Sasser added. "That's 30 percent of our staff."
Although the decision wasn't easy, Sasser told The Log that he took a hard look at each of the position's core functions and responsibilities and looked at what other districts were doing to handle the same workload. He said after a thourough internal and external review, the district determined that they could spread out the responsibilities to different staffers, while still offering the same service.
"We've done everything we can do, expect take the coffee pot out of the kitchen," Buckingham said.
But it's not just employee salaries that eat up 80 percent of the district's budget each year. On an annual basis, the district pays out about more than one million dollars in pensions, which is a contracted item they are mandated to pay.
"There will always be a pension cost to the district," Sasser said of the money that goes to pay both current and past employees.
The district is also tied into a contract with the Destin Professional Firefighters, a union organization that represents a majority of the district's firefighters. The district is locked into their current contract until 2015.
Residents should also notice that fire trucks are not parked outside of stores or restaurants anymore. After hearing residents complain, Sasser said he has told his firefighters they are no longer allowed to drive the trucks, unless it's to respond to a call.
Buckingham told The Log that the district has learned from that experience and has listened to what the voters have told them.
"The sad part is that we didn't listen to them before the last referendum," he said. "We are coming back this time and only asking for what we need."
CHANGE IN DESTIN FIRE CONTROL DISTRICT MILLAGE CAP TO 1.145 MILLS TO MAINTAIN CURRENT SERVICES: To fund the operating costs that are necessary to provide for and maintain life safety and property protections for the citizens of Destin, shall the Destin Fire Control District be authorized to change the millage cap from the current rate of 1.0 mills, approved in 1971, to 1.145 mills as authorized by Florida Statute ($0.15 for every $1,000.00 of property value)?
Want to learn more? A public meeting will be held Feb. 11 at 5:30 p.m. at the fire station on Airport Road. The public is welcome to attend and provide their input.