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Fire protection: County plan in works

NATCHEZ — The initial meetings to form a comprehensive county fire program are under way this week.

Supervisor David Carter, County Fire Coordinator Stan Owens and consultant Jay Fitch met Wednesday to discuss possible fire plans for the county. Carter was appointed to represent the board in discussions regarding the possibility of expanding local fire protection.

Wednesday’s meeting was just a preliminary step, Owens said.

“We just wanted to try to see which direction the county would want to go, to see if they would invest in this sort of thing,” Owens said. “It will be a pretty expensive project to push forward, and we don’t want to take too many steps forward if the board is not willing to accept it.”

County fire protection is currently provided by the Natchez Fire Department and supported by local volunteer fire departments. During the fall, the county and city governments disagreed about the level of funding that the county should provide for receiving fire support from the city. The disagreement lasted long enough that the legal agreement that allows for the city to respond to fire calls outside the city limits almost expired, and county officials began considering hiring firemen to man the volunteer fire stations.

Ultimately, the county agreed to pay an additional $50,000 — bringing the total funding to $626,000 — for 2013, but the interlocal agreement that both parties signed agreed that by this month a commission with representatives from the city, county, water districts and other interested parties would meet to discuss expanding fire services into the county.

Owens said he hopes to have that meeting arranged for some time next week.

The supervisors have in the past expressed support for manned fire stations in the county outside the city limits.

Carter said the supervisors will meet Friday to discuss Wednesday’s meeting.

“Right now there are so many things to figure out, everything from communications issues to personnel issues,” he said. “The problem we have is easy to solve, it is not a complicated problem, it just comes down to finances. Our goals are to be responsible to taxpayers and their money, and safety.”

Carter said during Wednesday’s meeting several possible options were discussed, but none of them involve divesting from the current fire protection interlocal agreement.

“Really, right now nothing is concrete,” he said. “We’re at the stage of, ‘Let’s throw as many options on the table right now.’ Hopefully at the end of it, we have put out enough ideas that one of them will work financially. We still need the city and the city still needs us.”

“We don’t need to get into a situation like last year — when it comes down to it we can put politics aside and serve the people best.”

Natchez Fire Chief Oliver Stewart said he was not able to attend Wednesday’s meeting.