Destin fire tax proposal goes down in flames

Lauren Delgado | Northwest Florida Daily News

Voters on Tuesday emphatically denied the Destin Fire Control District’s request to increase its millage cap to 3.75 mills, the maximum the state allows.

The measure was defeated by a vote of 1,685, or 80.7 percent, to 402, or 19.3 percent, according to official results.

Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux said 2,087 of the fire district’s 12,452 voters cast ballots, for a turnout of 16.8 percent. He had hoped for 20 percent.

“Typically these small elections just don’t generate that kind of turnout, anyway,” Lux said.

The fire district’s millage cap will remain at 1 mill for the time being. One mill equals $1 for every $1,000 of taxable property value.

Facing budget deficits and decreased property values, the fire district's board of commissioners voted 4-1 in March to bring the issue to voters. Some commissioners predicted the district will have a budget deficit close to $1 million by next year.

Fire Commissioner Mike Buckingham, the lone dissenting vote on the board, believes statements about the district being in debt are premature. The commission needs more time to look at the figures, he said Tuesday night.

The board will take a look at the 2014 budget within 30 days, he said.

The district’s reserves will cover any deficits in the budget, Buckingham said.

If the district needs a higher millage cap, the board can ask voters again next year, he said.

Commissioners predicted a 1.12 millage rate would be needed in fiscal 2014 and a 1.25 millage rate in 2015.

Buckingham didn’t want to give a figure.

“We’ll ask for what we need, not what we want,” he said.

However, the economy is making a comeback, and the district may not need anything, Buckingham said.

“My thought would be I hope we don’t have to come back to them,” Buckingham said. “The taxpayer in my mind has been bobbing to keep their head above water for the last few years.”

Despite fire officials’ warnings to the contrary, the district will not cut services or lay off firefighters, he said.

“We’ll make this work,” Buckingham said.  

Fire Commissioner Rick Moore agreed that there will be no decrease in personnel or services, but rather a possible decrease in employee benefits.

He hoped that attention would be brought to how the firefighters union has monopolized the district. The commission now has more leverage, Moore said.

“Now we can sit down with the union and renegotiate the contract and we can get better control of the Fire Department,” he said.

Phone calls to fire board Chairman Tom Green were not returned Tuesday night.