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Destin Fire faces major budget shortfall

After two failed attempts to get more tax funding, the Destin fire control district faces a half-million dollar budget shortfall next year.

Last March, voters turned down a request to raise the district's millage cap. This month, they said no to an increase of 15 cents on every thousand dollars of assessed value. Fire commissioners will have a special meeting Tuesday night to consider their options.

Last year, after the first bid for a millage increase was defeated in referendum, the Destin fire chief says they made lots of cuts, including two positions, a medical division chief and an administrative assistant. Plummeting property values threw the district's budget out of balance. For several years, they've dipped into reserves to keep service the same.

"People here in Destin don't understand how much these guys put their lives on the line for them," said Julie Herbig of Destin.

Chief Kevin Sasser says fire commisisoners will have to make some tough decisions, to adjust to what one calls their new reality. He has not made specific recommendations yet, but says one thing that's been discussed is reducing the number of medical calls they respond to.

"They're always the first guys there," said David Given of Destin. Given says the quick response has been important to neighbors with medical problems. He's surprised the millage increase didn't pass.
"When this referendum came up, and I agonized over that because it's not in my nature. But I did vote for, I figured 15 cents, I thought it was worth doing."

The 15-cent per thousand hike would have increased taxes on a $150,000 house by $2,250 a year. Without it, the district is a half-million dollars down.

"Well what's going to have to be cut is the firemen. We're going to lose a lot of our firemen."

Chief Sasser says job cuts are possible, as salaries are the biggest part of the budget. Commissioners will discuss their options Tuesday night. The Destin fire control district hasn't had a millage increase since 1971.