City, county fire protection agreement going up in flames?

Published 12:01 am Sunday, August 19, 2012

Photo illustration by Ben Hillyer & Lauren Wood / The Natchez Democrat

By VERSHAL HOGAN & Lindsey Shelton

The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — For almost as long as the City of Natchez and Adams County have partnered to provide fire protection to county residents the logistics have been smoldering.

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Since 1994, Adams County and the City of Natchez have had a fire protection agreement in which the county pays the city to provide fire protection to the areas outside the city limits. Now, the county supervisors are asking if the money they’ve been spending is simply going up in smoke.

The county board of supervisors directed County Emergency Management Director Stan Owens to begin investigating the possibility of forming an Adams County fire program in late July after a meeting with State Fire Coordinator Larry Barr, who told them the board pays more for fire protection per call than any other group of supervisors in the state operating under a similar fire protection agreement.

Under the interlocal agreement the board has with the City of Natchez, Adams County pays an average of $3,000 per fire call, Barr said. No one else in the state pays more than $500 a call, he said at the time.

“That was the first time I ever heard that (about the cost),” Supervisors President Darryl Grennell said. “I was really shocked that we were paying significantly more per call than any other county in Mississippi.”

The meeting with Barr was prompted in part by the fact that last year the city asked for a $50,000 increase in the payment, Grennell said, and the county is actively in the process of budgeting for the next fiscal year.

There’s also the issue of whether or not the quality of fire protection received matches the fee. Supervisor Mike Lazarus said the distance from the city’s fire stations to locations in the county limits the effectiveness of the arrangement.

“We have a lot of houses that have burned down,” Lazarus said. “It’s not their fault; it’s just too far away.”

Natchez Mayor Butch Brown said he did not know how the state fire coordinator calculated the amount per run total, but he said he did not agree with the numbers. Other factors must be considered, Brown said, including the extra firefighters the city hired for county fire protection, as well as equipment and maintenance.

Natchez Alderman Dan Dillard said he also believes there are a lot more factors that go into the per-run cost other than just the physical work and equipment, such as paying firefighters’ health insurance, retirement and other expenses.

Dillard said if the county thought they could create, staff and maintain a fire department for $500 per run, they should do so.

Brown said the county must also consider its insurance rating as it relates to fire protection and the impact of removing the city from that equation.

“There is no question about it, we are definitely looking at the insurance aspect of it in terms of fire ratings for residents outside the city limits,” Grennell said.

The agreement

The interlocal agreement that forms the fire protection plan has been re-adopted or amended 15 times since 1994. The original agreement was for the county to pay $400,000 for the city to respond to fires outside its incorporated limits, with adjustments made to that payment based on the consumer price index. The 2011-2012 agreement with the CPI index adjustments was for $566,300, and that is what the county paid despite the city’s request for an additional $50,000.

The agreement requires the city to provide two companies of firefighters — one of at least six and one of at least nine — dedicated specifically to fighting fires in the county; the city is to provide pumper trucks for both companies. The agreement also places county volunteer firefighting companies under the authority of the Natchez Fire Department when responding to calls to which the NFD responds.

The county purchased a pumper truck in 1996 that — while deeded to the county — is used by the city for fire response. The agreement also requires that the city have a minimum of 54 firefighters to provide services for both the city and the county.

Natchez Fire Chief Oliver Stewart said depending on the month, between 30 and 40 percent of the calls the department responds to are in the county.

County Administrator Joe Murray said the county’s portion of the fire protection plan is funded by an algorithm that combines gaming revenue, a millage that is split between fire protection and sanitation and approximately $85,000 in fire rebate money from the state.

Brown said when the inter-local fire protection agreement was set up, the county agreed to put up fire protection money, and, in turn, the city gave a portion of its gaming revenue from the Isle of Capri — at that time, Lady Luck — to the county to underwrite county fire protection.

Possible new plans

Lazarus said he does not believe the supervisors could start a county fire program in the coming fiscal year because of the late start in planning, but it is something for which the supervisors will continue to examine possibilities.

“We really don’t need to wait until next year when it gets to budget time to do this,” Lazarus said. “We need to sit down with the city and be working on a plan with Stan (Owens) involved.”

Owens said last week he had preliminary ideas for a few plans, but he did not want to comment on them until he had made a formal presentation to the board of supervisors.

Independent insurance agent Jack Stephens has been interested in seeing county fire protection districts for several years and has in the past approached the board with ideas about what could be done to improve the county’s fire rating, which would in turn improve insurance rates.

“Some insurance companies, if a residence is within five road miles of a fire department, they will allow us to use the same insurance rate as for a house in the city,” Stephens said. “But the majority of companies don’t utilize a rule like that. They use a rule that says if you are outside the city limits, it doesn’t matter if you are 10 feet outside of city or 10 miles, you are the same rate.”

That could be addressed by the county and the city to form a greater Natchez fire district, Stephens said, having an engineer locate city fire departments and draw irregularly shaped fire districts to incorporate all of the residences within five road miles of those stations.

“The supervisors would then go to the Mississippi State Rating Bureau, and they would then rate that area based on the availability of fire hydrants, water pressure and any number of other criteria, and we might be able to get a (better) rating for that intermediate area.”

That solution would help with insurance but not necessarily improve fire response.

The intermediate solution would be to staff the volunteer stations in the county, Stephens said, which would help response time. Barr told the supervisors in July such a plan would be fairly easy to implement, and would save homeowners $1,000 a year on property insurance.

The long-term solution would be to build fully staffed fire departments at the intersections of U.S. 61 North and U.S. 84 in Washington and at the intersection of U.S. 61 South and Kingston Road while maintaining the volunteer fire departments, Stephens said.

“If we did that, from there you can basically draw a five-mile radius from those stations and cover the vast majority of residences in Adams County,” he said.

“It seems to me we could staff to the requirements of the rating bureau at all of these; with a half million dollars, you can do a lot of work. I am sure there are a lot of grants and abilities to obtain a lot of equipment.”

When Barr met with the supervisors he told them the county has several grants it qualifies for but is not utilizing at this time.

Supervisor Calvin Butler said he would support a plan to build two new firehouses on U.S. 61.

“If the types of industrial prospects that we are anticipating come to town, I think it would be a good idea to do it that way,” Butler said. “(The fire stations) would become independent to protect those areas on the north and south end of the county.”

A communication gap?

Lazarus said the county doesn’t know what the city is going to request to be budgeted for the fiscal year 2013 fire protection agreement because, as of last week, the city has not submitted a proposal for renewal.

The current agreement will expire at midnight Sept. 30, when fiscal year 2012 comes to a close.

Brown, likewise, said he has had no communication with anyone from the county regarding fire protection for the upcoming fiscal year.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis appeared before the supervisors at their July 16 meeting to inform them that the aldermen want to meet with the supervisors about fire protection before finalization of the county’s budget.

Mathis noted that there was a discrepancy about when the city came to the county last year to ask for an additional $50,000 to add to the approximately $566,300 fire protection inter-local agreement.

Mathis, who is chair of the city’s fire committee, said since the city and the county have not met on the fire protection matter, she did not want to comment on fire protection.

But Brown said last week there has been no amount specified for additional funds the city would request from the county for fire protection for the upcoming fiscal year. Brown also added he did not think an extra $50,000 would be enough.

“I’ve had no communication with them on the matter, but there will be at least $50,000 requested, probably more,” Brown said.

Brown said if the county no longer pays for fire protection, the extra firefighters the city hired when the fire protection agreement was created might have to be cut from the city’s payroll.

Grennell said if the county chose to staff its fire stations, he suspected some of the firemen working for the city would want to work for the county. Lazarus agreed, saying, “We are not trying to steal their employees, but I think they will be overstaffed if they quit covering the county.”

Dillard said he just wants the county to pay its fair share.

Dillard said since county fire runs make up 30- to 40-percent of the Natchez Fire Department’s runs, he believes the county should pay 30- to 40-percent of the fire department’s budget.

That would mean the county would pay at least $660,000, or 30 percent of NFD’s $2.2 million budget, for fire protection.

The county currently pays $566,300. The amount is adjusted every year when the city and the county renew the fire protection agreement based on cost of living increases.

Dillard said the numbers the city comes up with for fire protection are simply the amount needed to provide the coverage.

“Our numbers are not speculations or estimates or averages, they are expenditures that we can show and have been for the last 20 years,” Dillard said.

Brown said he did not see how it was his job to go to the county and ask for money for a service that the county is required to provide to its residents.

“It’s incumbent upon them to provide fire protection for the county residents and come to (the city) with a proposal they know we’re waiting on,” Brown said. “We stand ready, we’re not running from any meetings.”

The mayor also said the larger discussion about what the city and county will do about the fire protection agreement should not be misconstrued as an adversarial fight, but that a meeting between the two needs to happen soon.

Grennell said such discussions would need to include Owens as well, since he would be responsible for implementing a county plan if that is the route the supervisors ultimately decide to take.

The inter-local agreement continues to be an issue for both entities every year during the budgeting process. The reasoning, Dillard said, is fairly simple.

“We don’t think we’re charging enough, and they think we’re charging too much,” he said.

Ward 2 Alderman Rickey Gray said it should not be so difficult for the city and the county to come together to meet about something as important as fire protection.

“All these grown and educated folks, if you want to meet, we’re right across the street from each other,” Gray said. “It seems people are trying to avoid the issue.”

Gray said fire protection should not be a tug-of-war between the city and the county over the amount of money, he said it should be focused on doing what is best for the taxpayers.

“If they want to create their own fire (program), and that’s what best for their taxpayers, then I can’t blame them for that,” Gray said. “But if it’s not what is best for the taxpayers, then do what’s best.”

“Forget the money we’re playing around with.”