Burning deal reached: City, county agree on fire protectionPublished 12:07am Saturday, September 15, 2012
NATCHEZ — After more than a week of back and forth disagreement about fire protection, the Adams County Board of Supervisors and the City of Natchez reached a truce Friday that will eventually result in expanded fire protection for Adams County.
The compromise, which was reached after a Friday morning meeting between Supervisors President Darryl Grennell and Natchez Mayor Butch Brown, calls for the supervisors to increase their funding for fire protection by $50,000.
In return, the county and the city will form a commission that will develop a plan for satellite fire stations outside the city limits that the supervisors attorney, Scott Slover, said would hopefully be implemented by next July.
The meeting was hosted in what Grennell termed “mutual ground,” the conference room at Natchez Inc. Chairwoman Sue Stedman’s office. Grennell said Natchez Inc. arranged and facilitated the meeting because of concerns it had about the future of Natchez-Adams County as a whole.
Brown said he was very pleased with the outcome of the meeting.
“We feel like the county now has an understanding of what is required of the city and the impact of funding for countywide fire protection,” Brown said. “I feel like we are in a good position now for a good county-wide program.”
County Fire Coordinator Stan Owens said the proposed arrangement had been his dream for several years.
“I couldn’t be happier with this arrangement,” Owens said.
Prior to the compromise Friday, the county government was looking at developing an independent fire protection plan to cover the areas outside the Natchez city limits.
The committee the agreement will form would have at least one representative from the county government, one from the city government and at least one representative from the insurance industry, Slover said.
“The nuts and bolts of the plan, the planning of those satellite fire stations, would be up to the committee,” Slover said. “We want to be able to hear opinions from everyone.”
In the short term, what this agreement means is that residents outside the city limits will not experience a gap in or reduction of fire services, Slover said.
Brown said the compromise language would be written into the fire protection agreement, and Grennell said when the new agreement is drafted it will include target dates for meetings between city and county officials to discuss the direction the fire protection plan is taking in the coming year.
Brown said plans for future meetings would include professional consultants who can help address tricky issues such as where stations might be located or how to deal with water supply issues in the rural parts of the county.
After the meeting between Brown and Grennell, the supervisors met and granted Slover the authority to work with city attorney Hyde Carby to draft a new fire protection agreement that includes the compromise language.
Since the mid 1990s, the county has paid to have the city fire department respond to fire calls outside Natchez’s incorporated limits.
The supervisors had expressed concerns about the ability of the fire department to adequately respond to county calls because of the distance between the city and some rural locations, and in recent weeks, the two governments had disagreed about the level of funding necessary for the agreement.
The city had initially asked for an additional $132,000 for the coming year, but then dropped the requested increase to $50,000 with the provision that the NFD would only respond to structure fires. Eventually, that $50,000 request was also dropped to a base payment of approximately $576,000, but the provision about only responding to structure fires remained. The supervisors responded that they could not provide more than a half million dollars annually for an average of 24 structure fires a year.
When the supervisors asked if the city would grant a two-month, $48,000 extension to the current agreement while the county government developed a fire protection program for its unincorporated areas, city officials did not take official action but said they would not do so.
Because the county was facing an immediate future with no fire protection program in place, the supervisors voted Wednesday to start advertising for the hire of 13 firefighters to staff its volunteer stations in Kingston and on Foster Mound Road.
After the board agreed to the compromise Friday, Slover said the hiring would not have to go forward in the short term.
“That was always a contingency plan for us,” he said.
The additional $50,000 will be used to buy equipment and compensate for increases in benefits costs and changes to the Public Employees Retirement System, Brown said.
The agreement also means that the board will be canceling its meeting with the public scheduled for next Thursday to discuss the potential changes to insurance ratings that could have resulted from a switch to a county-operated fire district, Grennell said.