With new growth and increasing demand, Hall County Fire Services Chief Jeff Hood said it’s a good thing voters approved a 1 percent sales tax last month to fund infrastructure projects countywide.
Public safety spending is always a high priority, and using special purpose local option sales tax revenue to cover equipment expenses and new building construction is a way for county officials to bolster Fire Services and Sheriff’s Office budgets without dipping into the general fund.
More than $12 million in SPLOST VII revenue is earmarked for various fire department projects, including replacing station No. 1 on Athens Highway, building new stations in north and south Hall, as well as purchasing additional vehicles.
“We got the SPLOST VII passed, and we’re very grateful for that,” Hood said.
County departments and agencies, such as Fire Services, have submitted budget requests for the 2016 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
And while county administration said they are in the beginning stages of the annual budget process — officials will meet with department heads and commissioners over the next few weeks to hammer it out — the requests provide some insight into the fiscal needs and demands facing Hall County.
Hood said he is in the process of preparing a five-year plan to manage growth and service levels.
“We’re not trying to get everything at once,” he said, adding that incremental changes will help meet growing demands going forward.
Hood has proposed an operating budget of about $5.876 million, which does not include salaries and benefits costs. County officials said they are still calculating these.
The Fire Services budget totals about $18.7 million in the current fiscal year when personnel costs are accounted for.
Hood has also proposed a budget of about $193,000 for the training center and $140,000 for the emergency services complex.
Fire Services are not supported by the general fund. Instead, the Fire Fund is backed by a property tax rate for unincorporated residents of 2.4 mills and 3.83 mills for incorporated residents.
Administration and business services
Hood said the administrative division of Fire Services needs some reorganizing to better meet growing demands and ensure efficiency in operations.
With this in mind, additional clerical support is proposed. And other positions may be reclassified.
Additional clerical staff is proposed in the budget for the business services division as well.
Hood said warehouse storage and administrative facilities need to be expanded, and personnel needs will follow.
The agency is also looking to acquire a new storage facility.
Fire Services is also implementing a new inventory control software system which Hood hopes will reduce costs and help develop an equipment replacement plan.
Planning and preparedness
Code inspections, fire investigations, plan review and education programming make up the planning and preparedness division, and Hood is proposing to add new positions to round out these services.
These positions include a captain for marketing and public relations assistance, an additional fire inspector, educators and a civilian position to conduct risk-reduction activities for stations and support public educational initiatives.
Fire Services is also looking to hire more bilingual educators and firefighters as Hall County’s Hispanic and Latino population grows.
Training and professional development
Training is perhaps the most critical aspect of ensuring a fluid, high-functioning fire agency, and Hood has several ideas in mind to bolster personnel skills and attract qualified applicants.
This includes hiring new training instructors, upgrading classroom education technology, and reinstating training as paid school time.
In addition, Hood said there is a need for expanding the training facility, which is shared with Gainesville, and Hall County wants to host its own paramedic school.
The facility needs maintenance, upgrades and some remodeling, Hood said. And in keeping with his budgetary theme, Hood wants to tackle this a little at a time.
Hood said maintaining a skilled, experienced firefighting force requires Hall County to review its pay scales and opportunities for promotion from within. These are the two biggest reasons why employees leave for other fire agencies in neighboring counties.
“When somebody leaves, it’s not always pay,” Hood said, adding that changes are needed to make the agency more employee friendly. “You can’t change it all overnight, but we’re going to address it. We’re just trying to get the pay to where it’s competitive with other departments in the area.”
Hood said a huge investment is made in training firefighters and paramedics, and that the loss of this institutional knowledge becomes doubly costly when personnel leave for other departments.
“It’s just a smorgasbord of stuff that firefighters are required to know now,” Hood said. “It’s a lot. The day of just being a firefighter, that no longer exists.”