PRO and CON: Is Destin Fire Control District struggling to serve or 'greedy'?

Special to The Log
Robert Wagner and Mark Baugh.

Millage misinformation: Make an informed decision

Mark Baugh, Point: On May 14, a special referendum is scheduled to approve a much needed millage cap increase for the Destin Fire Control District. The district has operated under its current cap of 1.0 since 1971. This referendum is necessary for Destin Fire to maintain its current level of service.

Over the past several years, district revenue has decreased by $1.4 million as a result of depressed property values, and the budget has been cut by over $800,000. During these years, reserves have been used to cover the remaining gap. Unassigned funds are now insufficient to cover next year’s shortfall.

Unfortunately, a significant amount of misleading and inaccurate information has been presented to the public. We would like to take this opportunity to correct this misinformation and properly inform our citizens.

Misinformation: There is no budget shortfall (deficit).

Fact: The deficits for fiscal years 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, were $114,551 and $390,215 respectively. The deficit for the current fiscal year is $865,435. Next year’s anticipated deficit is expected to climb to $944,000 based on the most recent information available from the Property Appraiser.

Misinformation: The only budget item that has been reduced is office supplies

Fact: The district has cut the budget by $809,747 from 2009 to 2012. These cuts include reductions in fuel, overtime, education, training, uniforms, station and office supplies, fire prevention, etc. The district has also eliminated the following positions: 3 line firefighters, 1 assistant chief, 1 inspector, and 1 office assistant.

Misinformation: This referendum will be used to increase salaries and benefits

Fact: This is entirely untrue. The firefighters have not received a wage increase since 2009. In each year since, the union has agreed to a wage freeze, and the current contract has frozen the wages for the next three years. In addition to the wage freezes, the firefighters have also given up overtime pay by agreeing to accept comp time, agreeing to reduce education assistance by over 60 percent, and agreeing to a high deductible medical insurance plan.

Misinformation: This referendum is the union trying to push a blank check

Fact: The decision to bring this much-needed and easily-justified referendum to the voters was made by a 4 to 1 majority vote of the Board of Commissioners, not by the union.

Misinformation: The district wants to raise taxes 275 percent.

Fact: This is completely false. Destin Fire is the only professional fire department in south Okaloosa County that does not already have a millage cap of 3.75. Of the others, each department operates with a millage rate that is much lower than the cap. So, why 3.75? The board made the judgment call to ask for a 3.75 cap in order to bring Destin in line with the other districts in our county. The anticipated rate for next year is 1.12 and will still be the lowest in the county by far.

Misinformation: The 30 firefighter’s average salary and benefits is $106,000 per year.

Fact: This figure takes into account all 40 full time employees of the district including upper management and administrative personnel, and averages every employee related expense the district is responsible for including payroll taxes, employer Social Security and Medicare contributions, Worker’s Comp insurance, uniforms, physicals, etc.

Misinformation: The district currently has $4 million in reserves

Fact: At the end of the current fiscal year, the district will have approximately $3.6 million in reserves. Of these reserves, only an estimated $700,000 is available to cover next year’s deficit. The remaining amount is designated to a disaster fund and an asset fund that is scheduled to replace aging assets.

Misinformation: Firefighters retire after 20 years of service with full benefits

Fact: After 20 years, firefighters receive 70 percent of their base pay but no medical benefits. The firefighters earn this after 20 years of service to Destin. That's 20 years of putting their lives on the line for others, 20 years of working nights, weekends, holidays, and 2,904 hours away from family each year — 40 percent more than the standard 40-hour work week.

None of us became firefighters, EMTs and paramedics for the salary or benefits. The inherent risk involved in our jobs is much too great. We joined Destin Fire because we wanted to serve our community and make a difference every single day.

Thank you for your support, and thank you for making an informed decision.

Mark Baugh is a 13-year lieutenant/paramedic of the Destin Fire Control District and president of the Destin Professional Firefighters union.

Destin fire commissioner’s “American Greed”

Robert Wagner, Counterpoint

If you listen to the Destin Fire District commissioners, because of the declining property values, the district is projected to be $1 million short for the 2013-2014 fiscal year.

If the commissioners have their way, the millage rate cap will increase by more than three times the current millage cap. The commissioners approved by a 4-1 vote to recommend this increase.

The lone commissioner to cast a no vote was Mike Buckingham. Mr. Buckingham ran on the pledge to look out for the taxpayers. There must be a reason for his no vote. Why is it when the fire district only needs to increase the current millage rate from 1.0 to 1.06 to balance their budget? The commissioners want us to accept a millage rate cap of 3.75.

The district's current millage rate of 1.0 brings in $4.6 million. The 3.75 millage cap the commissioners want, if fully implemented, will generate $17 million.

A home assessed at $150,000 could go from paying $150 per year for the fire department to paying $562 per year. That’s an increase of $412 per year. To ask the taxpayers of Destin to accept the 3.75, the maximum millage rate cap by law and not the 1.06 rate that is needed to balance the budget, shows a lack of fiscal responsibility for our money.

With only five Destin fire district commissioners and one being the wife of a Destin firefighter, why would the commissioners renegotiate a contract with the union that doesn’t expire until October 2013, a year early?

The same commissioners who had to take money out of the reserve fund the last two years, just to balance their budget just gave the union a generous 20 year retirement at 70 percent of their pay with no age restrictions, with no way to pay for it, except to raise the millage rate.

The district's own Auditor/C.P.A. stated that the pension trust fund is a large part of the reasoning for the great amount of expenditures, as it is a large unfunded liability for the size of the district. The district paid $1.3 million just for pensions last year.

The auditor also pointed out that the actuarial accrued liability is $20 million for only 36 firefighters. The union is also trying to tell us they haven’t had a raise since 2009, but in 2008 they received a 26 percent pay increase. The union also negotiated medical benefits that pay 100 percent for the employee and 90 percent to their dependents. With unsustainable pensions and benefits, we will end up bankrupt just like General Motors. However, the federal government won’t be there to bail us out.

We are being misled by the union into thinking services will be cut. Not true. All the commissioners stated if this resolution fails, no services will be cut. The union members also paid for and passed out postcards, door-knockers and signs that are misleading.

Please do your own homework and get the real facts. After their last town hall meeting, the people of Destin spoke loud and clear to the commissioners, they did not support the millage cap increase. It seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

In this poor economy, when people have to struggle just to pay their bills, the fire commissioners should have followed the lead of the county commissioners, and refused to raise the millage rate. To ask for the 3.75 millage cap, the maximum millage cap by law, and not a reasonable cap like a 1.25 the taxpayers can support shows the commissioners are out of touch with the citizens of Destin.

The commissioners had a choice to set the millage rate to whatever they needed; they chose instead what they wanted.

I will say this again, this millage cap increase amounts to nothing more than a blank check for the fire commissioners, and I will not support it. Please vote no on the May 14th referendum.

Robert Wagner is a Destin resident, who is pondering a future run for the Destin Fire District board of commissioners.

For more on the millage debate, click here.