Editorial: County touches off an avoidable firestorm
Hall’s mishandling of medical unit plan turned a tough decision into a debacle

Some day, government officials may figure out that often how they handle difficult decisions leads to more problems than the policy choices themselves.

The latest example: Hall County’s decision to change how its Fire Services ambulance units are deployed, and its sudden reversal of that move on Friday.

The decision was made in late August to move medical units from Station 11 on Bark Camp Road in Murrayville, Station 10 on Ga. 52 in Gillsville and Station 9 on Poplar Springs Road serving more sparsely populated areas in East Hall to focus on areas with higher numbers of calls.

This plan wasn’t revealed to the public; a press release instead touted technology updates to improve response times. Fire officials met with commissioners two at a time in private meetings to brief them on the plans, which may have been an attempt to circumvent open meeting laws and isn’t in the spirit of open government. 

Commissioners thus knew this was coming but didn’t move to inform their constituents until Times reporters pressed for an explanation as residents began hearing news through the grapevine and raising concerns.

When news of it leaked out, Fire Services attempted to allay fears by insisting the units responding to emergencies in those areas would still include trained medical professionals and the necessary equipment to render any aid needed.

Emergency experts are best suited to decide how best to use their resources, and it seems to make sense that higher-density areas would get the most attention. But the way the decision was made, and then scrapped, was a four-alarm blaze unto itself.

The resulting anger was predictable from Hall Countians who face a hike in property taxes yet felt their safety was being compromised. Whether that was true or not, county officials did not take the extra steps needed to ease those concerns in advance. Had they sought public input, they still would have faced unhappy taxpayers, but may have started a dialogue that could lead to a compromise everyone could live with. The way it was handled instead showed both a lack of consideration for the public and a lack of commitment for the plan itself.

In the one public hearing held after the fact, Commissioner Scott Gibbs and Chief Jeff Hood got earfuls last week in Gillsville at a gathering that drew some 100 people, most angry about the moves but also how they were kept in the dark about the changes. 

Now with the plan abandoned, county officials will have to fund some $1 million in anticipated overtime pay to serve all areas fully, to be paid from the county’s reserve funds.

“We feel like it was better to spend the money and keep everybody feeling safe,” Commission Chairman Richard Higgins said Friday. “We listen to the people — we do try to listen.”

That’s admirable, sure, but had officials vetted the plan properly instead of trying to sneak it past everyone, they might have been able to avoid the firestorm that followed. Now it is left with a large bill to pay and hurt feelings to smooth over.

Taxpayers have a right to expect a certain level of government services, public safety first among these. As Hall grows in population, those needs can stretch resources thin. Fire Services already is struggling to fill empty positions, having lost 38 employees this year through July with 51 vacancies overall. Public safety agencies have scrambled to stay ahead of turnover as trained professionals are lured away to other county agencies by higher salaries.

Meanwhile, commissioners swallowed hard to pass a tax hike earlier this year, the first in many years and overdue to meet growing demands and rising personnel and health costs that all public and private employers face. Any tax increase in today’s political environment is a bitter pill that can lead to hard choices at the ballot box. 

Elected officials have to make tough calls, and we don’t envy them those dilemmas. The alternatives include raising taxes even higher to pay for more personnel already hard to recruit and keep, or make do with what they have and allocate it wisely.

Yet amid these challenging decisions, local officials have one variable fully within their control: Interaction with the people who elect them. It’s not only smart management, but they owe it to those who elect them and pay their salaries — i.e., their bosses — and who deserve to know what’s going on.

Those of us who go to work every day know keeping secrets from the bosses isn’t a good idea. Eventually, when the truth is known, there is much more hell to pay. Honesty and transparency are the best policy and can ease the pain when hard choices must be made.

Perhaps from this incident and others, Hall County’s elected officials will heed that lesson and open the door to public review earlier the next time an unpopular decision must be made.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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