Officials meeting to talk fire program
NATCHEZ — Rather than gather all of the stakeholders in one place to duke it out, representatives from the stakeholders in the formation a countywide fire program have been meeting quietly for several months.
The meetings started in January after the City of Natchez and then Adams County both agreed to accept the pro-bono services of Jay Fitch, an emergency services transportation consultant who lives part-time in Natchez. Fitch would sometimes act as a go between the supervisors and the city government, and sometimes he would meet with their representatives at the same time.
Another time, Supervisor David Carter and County Fire Coordinator Stan Owens met with Natchez Mayor Butch Brown and Fire Chief Oliver Stewart.
“Jay doesn’t want to have a huge crowd,” Brown said. “He is not in favor of having every alderman and the fire chief and the mayor and every supervisor all in one room — he wants a representative group of the stakeholders.”
Owens said having an outside set of eyes and ears involved has been beneficial to discussions.
When the county and the city signed the interlocal agreement that calls for the Natchez Fire Department to respond to fire calls outside the city limits last October, the two governments agreed to form a committee to develop a long-range fire plan for the county.
In addition to the representatives of the city and county governments and local fire officials, the agreement called for the inclusion of a local insurance professional and representatives of Natchez, Inc., Adams County Water Association, Broadmoor Water Association, Bryandale Water Association, Oakland Water Association and Natchez Water Works.
Owens said representatives from those areas have not yet been brought into meetings because discussions are still in the early stages.
“Until we really get a good game plan together, it would be really premature to have too many irons in the fire,” Owens said.
The county fire coordinator said that for the next meeting of the representatives — which should happen sometime this month — a representative from the local insurance industry, Jack Stephens, will be invited.
Brown said the recent recommendation Owens took to the supervisors to hire an assistant fire coordinator who would be tasked with building up the county volunteer firefighting program was the result of the ongoing discussions.
“During a conversation we all had, it became increasingly evident and important that the volunteer program in the county had largely deteriorated and was going to require better participation and training and equipment and communications for them to have an effective program of assistance to the fire department in Natchez,” Brown said.
“Our discussions have been very fruitful, and the county recognizes some of those deficiencies and is acting on it.”
Owens said the county is currently accepting applications for the assistant fire coordinator position through the WIN Job Center.
Brown also said that at their last meeting the stakeholders asked Fitch to look at the fire department’s budget to determine if an increase in the allocation the county gives the city is needed.
In October, the county increased the payment it made to the city for fire services by $50,000 for total annual payments of $625,855.80 following a weeks-long disagreement about how much each board thought services should cost that almost ended with a non-renewal of the longstanding interlocal agreement.
“We have kind of agreed with Jay and Stan Owens that if (the county) can get their volunteer program back to where it is functional and eliminate some of its dependence on us, we can stay where we are (cost-wise) or have a small, moderate increase,” Brown said.
Carter said the key will be to get kinks ironed out in discussion so when it comes time for the county to budget fire money no contention will exist.
“If we can kind of figure out how to lock some prices in for the next few years, get some agreements in place, that would be ideal,” he said.
“I feel confident that we are going to come to some kind of agreement ahead of budget time this year and won’t have near the commotion we had (last) time.”