When it comes to Hall County's fire and emergency response, shrinking budget numbers are not always what they seem.
Rather than save money, cuts to those departments could mean higher costs for Hall County taxpayers, either in higher insurance premiums or endless training for firefighters and paramedics because of heavy turnover.
As with other county departments, firefighters, paramedics and 911 dispatchers face losing nine paid holidays under a recently proposed spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.
Public Safety Director Marty Nix, who oversees the county's 911 dispatchers, and Fire Chief David Kimbrell both say their employees have used holidays as furlough days since 2008. It's a plan Kimbrell and Nix say kept fire trucks, ambulances and call centers staffed despite mandatory furloughs.
"We haven't gotten holiday pay since the furloughs started, because we're already working the holidays - that is our furlough day," Nix said.
If the county takes nine more days of pay from employees and stays with the most recent budget proposal to take two ambulances off the road, the net effect could mean some four "units," fire trucks or ambulances, could be off the road every three days, Kimbrell said.
Put even more simply, Kimbrell says it will take his employees longer to respond to an emergency.
And even for the resident who never calls 911, that will cost. Home insurance rates in the county depend on emergency response times, from the time it takes a dispatcher to answer a call to the number of people who respond and how long it takes to get there.
Already, Kimbrell has moved some administrative workers out of offices and onto fire trucks and ambulances to keep the minimum staffing required to keep the county's rating by the national Insurance Service Organization.
Nix, too, has administrative staff working in call centers on nights, weekends and holidays because he can't pay regular employees overtime.
"We're already ... at a bare minimum," Kimbrell said.
Nix hopes he can absorb whatever cuts are handed down without affecting the way calls are handled. Nix's goal is to have 90 percent of all 911 calls answered in 15 seconds or less.
Even under cuts the department has faced since 2008, county dispatchers have been able to hit that goal consistently, giving central communications a perfect score in the latest ISO evaluation.
As long as those nine paid holidays stay in his budget, Nix says he can keep hitting that benchmark. If they aren't funded, he can't predict how long it will take to answer 911 calls and how it will affect the insurance rating.
"I don't know what the net effect will be, but I can surely tell you that if you don't have as many people in the room answering calls, then ... answering 90 percent of all the calls in 15 seconds are less, I can almost guarantee you that that will not be the level of service that will be given," Nix said.
Kimbrell says cuts in previous budgets have already limited his employees' ability to respond to emergencies.
"We're not able to do as good a job for the citizens, because you don't have as many people to send there," said Kimbrell.
And if the county loses two more ambulances, Kimbrell said ISO will certainly respond.
"If you shut those down, that's less people we have on duty to respond to fires and other calls that we are already graded as having," Kimbrell said. "So when ISO comes back in, they're going to say ‘well, we were here before and you had this many people, now you're down people, so we're going increase your rating. You're not as effective as you were when we were here last time.'
And that results in people paying higher insurance premiums."
Taxpayers also pay as the county is continually training new fire and emergency personnel. Recently, Hall County has earned a reputation as a place where emergency responders train, then move to greener pastures where furloughs are fewer and benefits are better, Kimbrell said.
Recently, Kimbrell said his department paid to put 12 firefighters through fire training and EMT school for five months.
"By the time those people were ready to graduate and go on shift, we had already lost 11 people," Kimbrell said.
"So we had a net gain of one and we had to turn around and do that process all over again."
And in the next round, he lost three of 10 trainees.
"It's a never-ending process," said Kimbrell. "And the majority of the people are leaving because they can go closer to the metro (Atlanta) area where they're not furloughing, they get a retirement and it's the same work schedule. We've lost several to Gwinnett."
Training employees who leave soon afterward is a cost that produces little return for county taxpayers, Kimbrell says.
"I haven't calculated that in a long time, because it makes you sick," Kimbrell said. "It's a tremendous cost."
After hearing Thursday from residents angry about severe cuts in the proposed budget, county officials promised the plan would change and officially began to consider a tax increase to help offset an $11.5 million deficit.
Whether they will restore employees' paid holidays or the funding for the two ambulances remains uncertain.
Neither Nix nor Kimbrell say they know what to expect in the coming days as county finance officers rework the spending plan for 2012.
"We're going to do what we have to," said Nix. "The chips will fall where they may."