After adopting 2014 budget, fire chief says 2015 is 'make-or-break year'

Matt Algarin

Looking at his budget for the upcoming year, Fire Chief Kevin Sasser says he's grateful for having reserves to balance his budget, but come FY2015 that may not be enough.

"We were very fortunate this year," he said. "Next year will be a make-or-break year; I'm just not sure that I see the reserves there."

The Destin Fire Control District's Board of Fire Commissioners unanimously approved the FY2014 budget during their final budget hearing held Sept. 18. The approved budget totals $9,350,440, which includes $5,817,827 in expenditures.

While there may be almost $9.4 million in the bank, Sasser told The Log that the district had to dip into its reserve funds to balance the budget as revenues fell more than $500,000 short of the district's expenditures.

Similar to other government organizations roughly 80 percent of the fire district's budget is directly tied to personnel costs, which doesn't leave much to cut.

"We've whittled away at that 20 percent as much as we can," Sasser said. "We're kind of at the bare bones."

"Either you reduce your personnel, which in our case means reducing services, or you use your reserves," he added, pointing to the fact that past and current commissioners made a dedicated effort to put away funds "anytime we could."

As for the FY2015 budget, Sasser said it could be slim pickings when it comes to available options to balance the budget. He told The Log that it may in fact come down to making personnel-related reductions, which doesn't necessarily mean manpower, but benefits.

The district is currently in the second year of a three year contract with the Destin Professional Firefighters Union and in order for certain personnel changes to be made, an agreement to reopen collective bargaining agreement negotiations would have to be made.

With the current budget still in the forefront, Sasser said he and the board of commissioners are actively looking at ways to generate additional revenue heading into the next budget cycle.

"We are creatively beating the bushes and asking for others to help fund some of our services that benefit everyone, like beach safety," he said.

Back in May the district held a special referendum which asked residents in Destin to allow them to raise the millage cap from the current 1.00 mills to 3.75 mills, which would have been the max allowable under state law. The vote to approve the increase would have given the district "flexibility" to help offset budget shortfalls, officials said.

Both the fire chief and members of the board maintained that they would not raise the millage rate to the max, but residents were not so sure as the measure was handily defeated.

Although there are relatively challenging times ahead, Sasser said there is still good news to be had.

"We haven't had to send anybody home and that's a positive," he said.