Fire district mulls ideas for cost savings

Matt Algarin / The Destin Log

With a budget shortfall of more than $600,000 on the horizon, the spirit of cooperation is taking center stage at the Destin Fire Control District.

“We’ve had some good discussions and some good ideas have come forth and been placed on the table,” Fire Chief Kevin Sasser said of his recent meeting with representatives from the Destin Professional Firefighters Union.

After a failed referendum in March that asked voters to allow an increase in the district’s millage rate from 1.0 to 1.145 mils, every opportunity to make up the shortfall, preferably without sending bodies home, was on the table during Tuesday night’s regular commission meeting.

With about 80 percent of the district’s monies tied into personnel costs, Sasser has been meeting with union representatives to see if there are ways the two sides can cut some of the costs.

“It was a wide range of ideas, and as we discussed, it will probably be a combination of those ideas we put on the table,” he said. “Where we are now, with all of these ideas we put out there, we have to put numbers to the ideas and what the costs savings would be with any combination thereof.”

Sasser and Fire Commissioner Jack Wilson recently met with Okaloosa County Administrator Ernie Padgett to share with him the district’s current financial situation.

Wilson said they were able to “put a number on the table” during their meeting. He told his colleagues that about 80 percent of the district’s “runs” are related to advanced live support (ALS).

“That’s about $306,000 … that’s what it costs,” he said. “To say it another way, if we did not do that service, it would save us $306,000.”

Wilson said the county could provide the EMS service, but it could be a bit more challenging. He said the county currently serves as the primary responder for ALS calls, and the district as a backup.

The district could continue operating as it does now, but Wilson said it’s not a realistic option given the $300,000-plus price tag.

“If they would like to put the option on the table, that’s in their court,” he said. “Where we left it with him is that, for us, this is half of what the taxpayers said we have to save.”

 “We’ve asked twice for the taxpayers to pay for the fire department we have, and twice they’ve said no,” Wilson added. “So, we’ve got to have less fire department — somehow.”

For his part, Tommy Green, fire board chairman, said he has always thought that the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council should help foot some of the bill for the services the district offers. It would be one thing if the district’s call volume was limited to only Destin residents, Green said, it would be one thing, but it’s not.

“When it swells to 60, 70, 80,000 people, and we still have to provide the same service to them … why that shouldn’t be available to you or law enforcement and any kind of first responders, I don’t see where there should be an issue with that myself, but that’s me,” Green said.

The fire board will meet again May 13 at 5:30 p.m. at Station 9 on Airport Road. Sasser will meet again with union representatives April 21. Both meetings are open to the public.

Given the magnitude of the situation, Green told his colleagues the district wants to be thorough in its decision making.

“We’re doing this methodically,” he said. “It’s in the best interest of the firefighters, the district and the residents if we take our time with this.”