‘Difficult decisions’ ahead after referendum vote, but firefighters still 'have a job to do'

Matt Algarin
Fire Chief Kevin Sasser

Voters in Destin do not want to pay more taxes, and it showed as they handily voted down a referendum by the Destin Fire Control District that asked them to approve a hike in the millage cap from 1.0 to the state maximum of 3.75.

"They spoke loud and clear," Fire Chief Kevin Sasser told The Log.

When the polls closed and the votes had been tallied, the referendum was defeated by a vote of 1,685 (80.7 percent) to 402 (19.3 percent). Of the 12,452 voters in the fire district, only 2,087 cast ballots for a 16.8 percent turnout.

Sitting down with The Log two days after the vote, Sasser said the board of commissioners that he spoke with and the firefighters at the station were all a bit disappointed in the outcome, but they still had a job to do.

"This is tough, obviously, but we will regroup and move forward," he said.

As for why he thought the measure was voted down, Sasser said it could have been a variety of factors. But based on the conversations he had with voters and others in the community, the main reason seemed to be the decision to ask for the max cap.

"I think in general, the residents of Destin love the firefighters and the fire department, but they didn't like that we asked for the max. The word max can be frightening, worrisome," he said. "I think people felt as though we overreached with the 3.75."

But the decision to ask voters for the maximum allowable rate under state statute was based on a tremendous amount of research through a five-year planning committee, Sasser said. While the district's property values and expenditures were on par with other comparable districts, its revenue was almost 50 percent less.

Sasser said they looked to see what other districts had done to address shortfalls, and that was to raise the millage. He said they knew the 3.75 would be difficult for people, but it was a number that other districts recently had approved.

During the board's discussions on the referendum, there were talks of possibly implementing a yearly cap, which would have limited the board’s ability to increase the millage rate had voters approved the referendum. The only downfall to that option would have been if the district needed to go above the yearly cap to balance the budget.

"What would we do then?" Sasser said, adding that it posed additional concerns, so the decision was made to go with the 3.75 mils.

Destin resident Bob Wagner, who was outspoken on the referendum from its infancy, echoed the sentiments of Sasser. He agreed that the "taxpayers spoke."

"It wasn't about the firefighters; we love them," he said. "It was about the commissioners going for what they wanted, not what they needed."

During the run-up to the May 14 vote, fire district representatives launched an aggressive campaign, which informed voters that unless they approved the measure, all employees faced across the board compensation cuts of 18 percent or 15 employees could lose their jobs. They added that response times would be “compromised" and firefighters will be in increased danger.

As the lone commissioner to vote against putting the referendum on the ballot, Mike Buckingham disagreed with many of the points that were raised during the campaign.

"Shame on the commissioners for allowing the union, the firefighters, to go out there and make themselves look bad," Buckingham said. "I do feel bad for them because the commissioners should have met with them to tell them how this (campaign) should have been done."

Now that the voters have spoken, Sasser said the district will reevaluate everything and determine what the best course of action is as they look to overcome an upcoming budget shortfall.

With 80 percent of the district's budget tied to personnel costs, Sasser told The Log that cutting positions is an option, but it's "somewhere we don't want to go," and the board of commissioners and firefighters would have to agree to open that discussion.

Although they are under contract, firefighters have a "layoff" article that would allow the district to reduce personnel. The clause cuts from the bottom though, as the last firefighter hired is the first to get laid off.

Sasser said the district could also cut benefits, reduce services, or make reductions to its administrative staff. While none of the options are ideal, Sasser said they must all be looked at equally.

"The board now has to look at how we are going to move forward and continue offering the level of services we have been," he said. "We have to show a balanced budget, so they are going to have to make some difficult decisions this year."

He also didn’t rule out going back to the voters at a future date.

"At some point, yes, the district will probably have to ask the taxpayer for assistance," he said.

While the vote didn't go the way the district would have liked, Sasser told The Log that his firefighters are professionals and they would continue to serve the residents of Destin, as they always have done.

"Regardless of how the vote turned out, we've got a job to do," he said. "When you phone 911, we are going to be there."