In other business:
— Hall County Commissioners approved a rate increase for EMS ambulance transport as a way to help pay for emergency services.
The fee hike increases rates by as much as $360 per ambulance ride.
Currently, ambulance transport rates are based on the severity of the injury and the medical tools needed to treat the patient with the more severe injury having a higher cost. The levels range from $415 for non-emergency transport to $700 for calls that require more advanced lifesaving tools and drugs. However, commissioners approved a new flat transport rate set at $775, which is similar to rates reported in Forsyth County.
Hall County resident Michael Parker spoke in opposition to the increase.
“When you level a fee it’s most likely to fall on poor people than those who are more well off,” he said.
Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said more than 80 percent of EMS bills are paid by Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers.
“We are not affecting the cash in patients’ pockets. We’re just getting what we are due through Medicare, Medicaid and insurance,” Kimbrell said.
Commissioner Scott Gibbs cited estimates that the county spends about $7.3 million on the EMS budget, but collects only about $3.5 million in ambulance fees.
— The county held its first reading of an alcohol ordinance that would allow for Sunday alcohol sales of beer and wine by the package and for liquor by the drink at restaurants.
The revised ordinance follows Hall County voters’ approval of lifting a ban on Sunday sales in March. The ordinance also lifts some restrictions that went above those in state code on alcohol sales and consumption. The code would allow commissioners to approve alcohol sales for special events at county parks and would reduce the minimum requirements for alcohol to be sold near schools and churches.
With anticipated commissioner approval, the new ordinance — and Sunday sales in unincorporated parts of Hall County — will go into effect April 29.
— Commissioners also approved a payment of $103,000 to help pay for a proposed fence for the Elachee Nature Center.
Hall County Commissioner Craig Lutz may have just revived a decades-old debate at the Hall County Board of Commissioners meeting on Thursday.
The South Hall commissioner proposed taking a closer look at consolidating the county government with the city of Gainesville.
The idea of at least studying consolidation won the cautious support of the other commissioners, who expressed an interest in partnering with the city to explore the options.
The move seems to be getting mixed reactions from Gainesville officials.
Citing recent headline-grabbers about the future of Hall Area Transit services, disputes over the Cedar Creek reservoir and ownership of the old county jail, Lutz said there have always been “political barriers” between the city and the county.
He pointed to when, 20 years ago, voters in Hall County overwhelming supported a straw ballot asking if they would support a study of unification. A feasibility study was completed in 1995, which Lutz said showed the “benefits of unification between the city and the county.”
Seventeen years later, Lutz said Hall County and Gainesville officials should look toward completing that study with a cost-benefit analysis.
In an official motion, Lutz proposed writing a letter to city officials asking for a partnership in completing the 17-year-old study into the feasibility and budget impacts of such a move.
“This study, however, cannot be done without the full cooperation of both the Hall County and city government officials,” Lutz said, “and by a passing vote of this motion the county will have shown that we are ready to partner
together with the city to provide better services to our citizens at the most economical tax rate ...”
That motion was ultimately voted down 3-2, because other commissioners thought it might further ruffle feathers with the Gainesville City Council. But it did spark a discussion among the commissioners.
Commissioner Ashley Bell, whose district includes portions of the city, said the consolidation idea deserved a closer look. However, Bell voted against writing a letter, indicating that it might come across as provocative.
“I don’t think we would have broached this issue in a neighborly fashion,” he said.
Commissioner Billy Powell and Chairman Tom Oliver, along with Bell, voted against Lutz’s proposal to write a letter to city officials.
Instead, Oliver suggested that city and county officials should sit down informally first to talk about the issue.
After voting down Lutz’s motion, the commissioners unanimously approved Oliver’s suggestion.
“I think it’s a good idea to embark on a study,” Powell said. “But I would like a chance to discuss it with the city first and kind of walk hand-in-hand to do this.”
When asked if he would be willing to talk to the county about consolidation, Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said, “No. And that’s where we will leave it.”
Dunagan pointed out there were shared services in the past between the city and the county, such as building inspections, before the county chose to break it up.
He said he didn’t see any reason to bring up the topic again.
“It will be a one-sided conversation,” said Dunagan, of any consolidation talks, “with the county doing the only talking.”
Gainesville City Council Member George Wangemann, who was serving when that first consolidation vote and the subsequent study took place, signaled he was open to such a discussion.
As Wangemann recalls, however, the results of the study didn’t show evidence that unification would help both parties.
“At the time, it was not feasible to consolidate city and county service,” he said. “I’m only in favor if one side doesn’t take advantage of the other.”
Reiterating the mayor, Wangemann said he doubted it was something city officials were seriously interested in right now.
“My best guess is that consolidation, for most of us on the council, it’s far from our minds,” he said.
“It’s nothing that anyone has brought up in quite some time.”