At the county’s final budget hearing Tuesday, officials discussed ways for Hall County Fire and EMS to save money in the future — including consolidating the department with Gainesville’s.
After Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell presented the department’s needs for fiscal year 2011, officials began brainstorming potential solutions to cut costs.
“Has there been any thought lately about combining the fire departments?” asked Commissioner Billy Powell. “It just seems like something we ought to continue to look at.”
Kimbrell said the concept has been explored in the past. An official study into merging the departments was conducted in 1996.
“It’s the matter of y’all giving up people and authority and the city giving up people and authority and who does that,” Kimbrell said. “Somebody’s going to lose out, me or (Gainesville Fire Chief) Jon (Canada).”
“My personal opinion is that’s the wise thing to do as far as spending taxpayer dollars,” Kimbrell said.
Hall County and Gainesville have a mutual-aid agreement, which calls for the nearest emergency vehicle to respond to a call, whether it is in the city or the county.
Commissioner Steve Gailey said though city and county officials disagree over a number of issues, perhaps emergency services should be an area of compromise.
“Squandering over water is one thing, but squandering over services to people’s lives and what saves people the most money is another, and I’m talking about city of Gainesville residents and Hall County residents,” Gailey said.
Commissioner Bobby Banks recommended using a nonbinding referendum to gauge public opinion in the next election, though Administrator Charley Nix said many more discussions would need to take place before getting to that point.
Canada declined comment until he could consult with the city manager and City Council.
The county also heard budget requests Tuesday from the Correctional Institute, Parks and Leisure and Administration.
Nix said throughout the budget hearings, all departments were asked to maintain the same budget as last year.
The proposed 2011 budget, which starts July 1, is $90.3 million. The approved 2010 budget was $92.7 million.
Nix said now that budget hearings are over, county staff will go through the requests to consolidate them for public hearings in June before the commission takes a vote.
“The public budget hearings at the end of the year is a broad overview,” Nix said.
He doesn’t expect any major changes before the budget is adopted.
“By and large I think we’re there with this budget. $90.3 million is pretty close to where we’ll come in,” Nix said.
Department heads were challenged with cutting from some areas to compensate for increases that were needed in others.
“We challenge them to look within and see if they can find it,” Nix said.
Officials tried to find creative ways to cut costs.
“We got with Brett Jockell and our maintenance department to try to make sure we don’t have any leaky faucets, to control the showers where the inmates shower,” said Warden Avery Niles. “That in itself we feel we can decrease this upcoming budget cycle by $6,000.”
Nix said he recognizes the challenges each department is facing as the county continues furloughs, hiring freezes and a halt to capital purchases.
For Niles, it’s a leaky roof.
“When it rains, we fill up every 55 gallon trash can in the place,” Niles said.
For Kimbrell, it’s the strain the economy has put on emergency services.
“People are calling us more and more,” Kimbrell said. “People are losing health care, they’re unemployed.”
All agreed that they can hold out for another budget year, but eventually something will have to give.
“We can fast, but when you come out of a fast you’re going to be hungry,” Kimbrell said.