Destin Fire: Layoffs, station closures possible
Tempers were short and accusations aplenty during Tuesday night’s Destin Fire Control District Board of Fire Commissioners meeting.
“Since I’ve been here, this place has gone straight downhill,” said Virgil May, a Destin firefighter. “This place is terrible now; we don’t get the training we need.”
“I believe it starts with this man at the top,” May added, pointing to Fire Chief Kevin Sasser.
After direct questioning and accusations toward Commissioner Mike Buckingham, May was escorted out of the room by a fellow firefighter.
“I’m not going to allow personal attacks on this board,” Chairman Tommy Green told the crowd of about 25 or 30, while apologizing for the outbursts.
Once cooler heads prevailed, the board was able to get down to business, which was holding an open dialogue with those in attendance, as they begin to explore what avenues are available for funding a $600,000-plus budget shortfall.
After a second referendum asking for a millage cap increase was soundly defeated, the district is looking at a variety of options to help balance its budget, which has taken a big hit due to the decline in property values.
The referendum, if approved, would have increased the district’s millage cap from 1.0 mils to 1.145 mils, which would have meant an increase of 15 cents for every $1,000 of a homes assessed value. The measure was defeated by a 1,031 (57.15 percent) to 773 (42.84 percent) margin.
Last year, the district asked voters to approve a referendum item that would have given them the authority to raise the millage cap to the max of 3.75 mils. The measure was resoundingly shot down by Destin's voters — 80.7 percent to 19.3 percent.
Board members and representatives from the fire district said they “learned their lesson” after the first vote and only asked the voters for “what we need” the second time around.
Now they are scratching their heads.
“We asked for what we needed and we didn’t get it,” Green said.
There was no shortage of ideas bounced around the room Tuesday night, ranging from possible grant opportunities to implementing a non-ad valorem tax assessment.
Faced with an estimated deficit of $610,608 for the 2014/15 fiscal year, Sasser presented the board with a list of potential expenditure reductions.
The first option would call for Station 10 (on Crystal Beach Drive) to be shutdown and associated positions eliminated, a layoff of six employees, and a restructuring of shifts. This would save the district $560,070, which is $50,538 short of the “break even” point.
The second option calls for Ladder 9 to be shutdown and associated positions eliminated, six employee layoffs, restructured shifts, and the district would only respond to medical calls when specifically requested. This option represents $538,661 in savings — $71,947 short of break even.
A third option calls for the district to discontinue responding to all medical calls and layoff three employees, which would amount to $499,524 in savings — $111,084 short of break even.
Additional options include laying off six employees by May 1, saving $156,890 this year or laying off three employees in the same timeframe, saving $80,153.
Putting the options on the table, Sasser told his board that none of these options were ideal and they would ultimately have an impact on the community.
“This is where we start, I don’t know if this is where we finish,” he said.
If he had to choose, Sasser told the board that option two would be his recommendation. Ultimately the district will have to make some type of decision, whether its layoffs or finding cost savings somewhere else.
Eighty percent of the district’s costs are tied to personnel, which many said Tuesday can be a good thing and a bad thing. The high number means the district carries very little debt, actually zero debt, Sasser said.
But a majority of those personnel costs are tied in a contract with the firefighters union, whose contract isn’t open for re-negotiation until 2015. It was noted that the union would be willing to discuss pay and benefits to help the district with the shortfall.
There were no formal votes taken Tuesday night, but commissioners will meet again for their regularly scheduled meeting April 8 at 5:30 p.m. at Station 9 on Airport Road. The meeting is open to the public.
As for the way forward, most of the commissioners and members of the audience agreed that they had to stop looking to the past and focus on the future.
“I think we need to bury some hatchets,” Commissioner Rick Moore said.