By DOTTY NIST
Fire District Chief Rick Talbert told community members that the South Walton Fire District (SWFD) is “committed to resetting to that new normal, whatever it is.”
The SWFD held a budget workshop on Aug. 17 at district headquarters in Santa Rosa Beach. A small group of citizens, two fire commissioners, and a number of SWFD firefighters and other personnel were in attendance.
While admitting that the SWFD is “fiscally strained” as a result of the current economic climate, Talbert emphasized that the district remains financially strong and strong in its mission to provide “prompt, competent, caring response” to citizens in their time of need.
Established as an independent special district in 1983, the SWFD serves the 84-square-mile area south of the Choctawhatchee Bay in Walton County. The SWFD relies on ad valorem taxes on property within the district as its primary funding source, and as property values have declined in the district, so has this source of revenue.
Talbert noted that there has been a 37-percent overall decline of property value in south Walton County. This is a decline that has been in progress over the past several years.
In addition to a 4.44-percent reduction in south Walton County property value facing the SWFD in preparing a budget for the new fiscal year, the organization also faced the challenge of hikes in employee health insurance costs – a 15.5-percent increase in 2011 and an additional 5.2-percent increase to come in 2012, among other economic challenges.
Talbert said the SWFD proposed to address a $1.5 million budget shortfall for the 2011-12 fiscal year through the use of $500,000 in cash forward funds from revenue and savings, $300,000 in reserves, and $700,000 in labor cooperation.
He said the labor cooperation, still under negotiation, would consist of reductions in pensions, educational benefits, and wages.
Talbert said no new program enhancements were being proposed and that the SWFD planned to put off budgeted purchase of a $1 million new ladder truck for the Mack Bayou station, instead utilizing the old truck for the next few years in order to free up funds for federally-mandated radio system innovations.
While a millage rate increase was proposed in connection with property taxes funding the SWFD, Talbert explained that the proposed millage rate, 0.8999 mills, had been calculated to generate the same amount of revenue as in the current fiscal year.
One mill equals one dollar per $1,000 of taxable property value.
While higher than the current year millage rate, 0.86 mills, the proposed rate is below the rolled-back rate, Talbert stated. Brian Flanagan, financial officer for the SWFD, explained that the rolled-back rate (0.9068 mills) would generate the amount of ad valorem taxes collected in the current fiscal year plus revenue resulting from new construction.
Talbert noted that, under the proposed millage rate, the yearly payment to the SWFD for the owner of the average-valued house in the district ($250,000) would be approximately $196, or $16 a month. “For $16 a month, it’s a good value,” he said.
According to a budget summary provided by the SWFD. total expenditures for the current year budget totaled slightly over $12.2 million. Expenditures for the new fiscal year budget are proposed to be slightly less than $11.9 million.
In addition to a discussion of the budget, the workshop included other informational items on the district. Talbert reported that 94 employees are certified in firefighting, 100 are state-certified emergency medical technicians, 63 are state-certified paramedics, 32 have associate degrees, 12 have bachelor’s or master’s degrees, two have completed Executive Leadership Institute programs, and one has a Chief Fire Officer designation.
A federal grant for $100,000 was received, and 3.5 positions were eliminated from the organization at a savings of $275,000, he said. Talbert commented that, although “valuable team members” were lost in the personnel reduction, the district’s ability to respond was not impacted
He said that during the 2010-11 fiscal year the SWFD had responded to 890 fires, 3,129 medical emergencies, and 30 water rescues, with an average response time of six minutes, 52 seconds. The SWFD’s “save rate” was reported at more than 94 percent for 2010, higher than the statewide rate of 93 percent. Zero fatalities were reported for civilians or firefighters.
. Talbert added that the SWFD had received an “exemplary” rating from the Florida Bureau of Emergency Management Services.
The SWFD’s tentative budget is scheduled to be posted on the SWFD web site, www.swfd.org, on Sept. 1. The first public hearing on the budget is set for Sept. 8. The final public hearing to approve a budget will take place on Sept. 21.