PRO AND CON: Destin Fire Control District to ask for millage cap increase

Staff Writer
The Destin Log

PRO: Destin Professional Firefighters make case for millage hike

The Destin Fire Control District exists and operates to protect the citizens, residents and tourists of Destin. Along with professional fire protection, we provide Advanced Life Support, Water Rescue, Boat Fire Response, High Angle Rescue, Haz-Mat, Community Assistance and more. The District is operated day to day by Fire Chief Kevin Sasser and is managed by a Board of Commissioners that is responsible for making and overseeing all financial decisions. The majority of our operating revenue is determined by ad valorem taxes that are directly affected by property values. Each year, during the public budgeting process, the board determines the necessary millage rate to cover the upcoming year’s budget. This millage rate is subject to a millage cap that is set by a vote of Destin residents. The District’s current millage cap is 1.0. This is the original cap that was set at the department’s inception in 1971 and it is the lowest in Okaloosa County. The district has not been able to escape the effects of a declining housing market. Over the past several years, we have been the victim of depressed property values while facing an increased demand for our services. Our operating costs are 5.5 percent above those of the 2006-2007 fiscal year while our ad valorem revenue is 19.5 percent lower.

We are currently faced with the problem trying to maintain our level of service with much less revenue. Our yearly budgets have been reduced over the past three years, and our ability to use reserves to offset our budget shortfalls has been depleted. Now there is no more room to reduce without cutting services and personnel. Our board and our management have done their part to reduce our expenses including a hiring freeze, an overtime freeze, all discretionary expenses have been frozen, positions have been left unfilled following vacancies, and we have not and will not be making any new truck or vehicle purchases.

Our employees have also done their part by accepting wage freezes for the past 3 years and signing a labor contract that will freeze wages for the next three years. These circumstances have brought us to the point where we have done all we can do, and now we need the help and support of the citizens of Destin. On May 14, a special referendum is scheduled that requests voter approval of an increase in the millage cap from 1.0 to 3.75. Early voting will also be open during the week prior to the 14th. A yes vote will guarantee that Destin Fire is able to maintain the current level of service that our residents have come to know, expect, and rely on.

All of the other professional fire districts in southern Okaloosa County have already set their millage caps at 3.75. By raising our cap to 3.75, the citizens of Destin will be giving the board the ability to balance the budget. By no means does this mean Destin homeowners will be taxed at a 3.75 Millage rate. The anticipated shortfall for the next fiscal year is just over $1 million ($1,093,333). In order to cover this gap, the board anticipates a necessary millage rate of 1.12, which will still be the lowest rate in the county by far. This rate will mean an added annual impact of only $12 per $100,000 of the taxable value of your house.

We welcome, invite, and encourage all citizens to participate in this issue. You can call the Destin Fire Control District at 837-8413 and request to speak to Chief Sasser or any Commissioner. You can come to the station and have your concerns addressed directly. We have scheduled a Town Hall meeting on April 1 at Station 9 on Airport Rd. The meeting will begin at 4 p.m. until 7 p.m. There will be a presentation and a Q&A session. We understand that not everyone’s schedule is the same, so citizens are encouraged to come and go according to their availability. We encourage everyone to attend. 

We work for you, we protect those you love, and you are our ultimate authority. Please make an informed decision and attend.

A YES vote will guarantee the Destin Fire is able to maintain our current level of service. We are there for you in your time of need. Please be there for us. Vote yes on May 14.

The Destin Professional Firefighters posted this to their Facebook Page.

CON: Fire district funding folly: Don’t let the 500-pound ape loose

Thanks for the info about the Destin fire district trying to uncap the millage rate.  I think it is akin to letting a 500-pound ape loose in a room for no reason, so I would have to vote NO if I was allowed.

However, there are a few questions I would have asked Chief Kevin Sasser.

First of all, an important disclosure: I am with a fire department, and I sell trucks and equipment to fire districts for a living. Our volunteer department has seven stations and makes 2,100 runs per year.

Here are my questions.

If cuts are to be made, what would they be? 

As property values have declined (though they are beginning to come back up based on sales prices), why do they need to do this in the first place? 

If fire taxes go up, how much will the ISO fire rating go down for a net tax versus net insurance premium cost comparison?

I was in Destin over the weekend, and saw firemen training inside the apparatus bay, which costs nothing since they are there anyway.  I also saw an aerial truck parked at a local eatery around lunchtime.  Don't they have a kitchen at the hall?  And at 3 miles per gallon, why would they need to take such a big truck to lunch?

There are ways to save money at any department.  I don't think the Destin Fire Control District has explored these options.  I would suspect it would cause the union members to whine if they couldn't go out to lunch.

I also object to the Log’s continued use of "professional" when referring to paid departments. There are many volunteer departments nationwide with highly trained personnel, often more than a nearby "professional" department.  In short, all recognized fire departments are professional. They are either paid, volunteer or paid on call.  That is the terms FEMA uses to classify departments. 

Please don't slap the “vollies” around with the "professional" comment.  After all, many volunteer firefighters do training classes for the paid firefighters.

I hope you'll be able to find out what services would be cut so voters have a clear choice.  They might cut out lunches on the run to start with and use a delivery service and see how that plays with local voters.

John Almon

Columbia, Tenn.