When voters take to the polls Tuesday, Fire Chief Kevin Sasser says he hopes for a different result from the last time the Destin Fire Control District put forth a referendum.
"The general sense from those I've spoken to is that 'yeah, we support this because it's very minor,' he said of the district's proposed millage increase. “Depending upon the outcome of this vote the District will be faced with some very difficult decisions concerning the future of the fire department.”
Currently capped at 1.0 mils, the fire district is asking voters via a referendum to increase the millage rate cap to 1.145 mils, which will help them offset a budget shortfall of almost $500,000.
The millage jump would represent an increase of 15 cents for every $1,000 of property value.
Commissioner Jack Wilson said the proposal would allow the district to continue operating at the high level residents have become accustomed to over the years. In 2009/2010, Wilson said the district eliminated positions, such as the assistant fire chief, to reduce expenditures. More recently, they eliminated the medical division chief position and a full-time receptionist position. Those cuts saved the district more than $100,000.
"Those are the cuts we could make," he said. "We've looked at a lot of other things, but the next cuts would have to come off of the trucks and we don't want to do that."
As a potential fire commission candidate, Bob Wagner was opposed to the prior referendum and quite outspoken on the matter. He is equally as opposed to the current referendum as well. In a letter to The Log titled "Here we go again: Millage Rate Increase," Wagner questions some of the employee benefits and retirement packages.
He points out that each employee receives 156 hours of sick time per year or 19.5 days and between 4.5 and 7.5 weeks of vacation each year. On the retirement front, he says $79,000 is the average annual income for the seven current retired employees with a 2.5 percent annual cost of living adjustment.
“District employees are civil servants and are supposed to work for the taxpayers, why do I feel like I’m working for them?” he wrote. “Can we afford to give these generous health and retirement packages to the union?”
Wilson told The Log that personnel costs represent about 80 percent of the fire district's total budget, but there is not much they can do to reduce that number at this point in time, as the costs are tied to a contract with the firefighters’ union.
"The bigger nut is the contract, which opens up (for negotiation) next year," he said. "That's what the next real round of this is about, which is November, not this vote."
Both Wilson and Sasser said they have learned from the district's 2013 proposal that would have given them the authority to raise the millage cap to the max of 3.75 mils. The measure was defeated soundly by Destin voters — 80.7 percent to 19.3 percent.
This time around, the district is only asking for what's needed.
"We're basically asking the citizens to pay the bill for the service they want," Wilson said.
CHANGE IN DESTIN FIRE CONTROL DISTRICT MILLAGE CAP TO 1.145 MILS 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)?