Hot topic still without common extinguisher

Published 12:05 am Tuesday, September 11, 2012

NATCHEZ — Nearly daily discussions of city and county fire protection may not have gotten either entity very far, at least to this point.

The current agreement that governs county fire protection is set to expire at the end of the month.

The Natchez Board of Aldermen met Monday evening to discuss the proposed 2012-2013 fiscal year budget, but the board also took up the now-heated issue of fire protection.

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Adams County Emergency Management Director Stan Owens sent the aldermen and Mayor Butch Brown two fire protection proposals Monday afternoon, one for a joint effort between the city and county and the other only a county plan.

Owens said he worked with Natchez Fire Chief Oliver Stewart on the logistics of a joint effort.

The county-only fire proposal included a $614,212 payroll, staff at Foster Mound and Kingston stations, as well as building a station in the Elgin/Beau Pré area in the future. The proposal outlined needs for Internet, television and computer needs at Foster Mound and Kingston stations, as well as more protection for other areas in the county.

The Natchez-Adams County proposal includes staffing Foster Mound and Kingston fire stations with one driver/operator and one firefighter each for 24 hours a day, seven days a week as soon as possible.

That would require, Owens said, the reassignment of 12 city fire employees. The county, he said, currently supplements the salaries of 15 city firefighters. The extra firefighters were added to the city’s department when the agreement was drafted in the 1990s.

The firefighters would be county firefighters under the direction of the Natchez fire chief, Supervisor Mike Lazarus said.

The decrease in staffing for the Natchez Fire Department would remove one pumper truck from the city’s inventory, according to the proposal.

The financing for staffing the volunteer stations would cost the county $519,534. The county has agreed to commit $576,000 to an interlocal fire protection agreement with the city, and the remaining $56,466 could cover overtime, uniforms and protective gear, Owens said.

Staffing the volunteer stations would allow those firefighters to respond to calls, with Natchez firefighters only being needed for structure fires or calls that need extra staffing.

An agreement for response to the Natchez Port, Owens said, would also have to be considered with a city-county agreement.

The problem with the county using 12 city firefighters, Mayor Butch Brown said, is that would mean the city’s fire department would be understaffed.

Brown said the city was prepared to accept the $576,000 the county is offering for fire protection, but he said the city would only respond to structure fires in the county.

The county supervisors turned down the city’s request for an additional $132,000 for fire protection last week.

The city, Brown said, responded to 24 structures fires in the county in 2010 and 23 in 2011.

The remaining more than 200 calls included grass, brush and vehicle fires, as well as false alarms, smoke scares and other related calls.

Only responding to structure fires did not sit well with Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith.

“Brush fires lead to structure fires,” she said.

Smith and Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery said they thought it was important to come to some kind of understanding with the county that could benefit the public.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis and Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard expressed frustration for a fight they said is very familiar to them.

Mathis said she went to the supervisors in July to inform them the city wanted to meet about fire protection before the county budget was adopted, and the city did not get that consideration.

Ward 2 Alderman Rickey Gray said he did not understand why the aldermen and supervisors met about fire protection if the supervisors were just going to turn around and say their budget had already been advertised and finalized.

Mathis said she did not think county fire protection was the city’s fight. Mathis said it would be up to county residents if they “want that kind of fire protection and that kind of (insurance) rating and will let their supervisors sell them that crock.”

Manning the two volunteer fire stations, Lazarus said, could be done with or without city cooperation.

“The thought would be that they would be county firefighters under the direction of the city fire chief, or they could not be,” Lazarus said. “The county could break away from the city and man the fire stations on their own.”

County-manned fire stations without city help seemed to be perfectly fine with Brown, and he said he did not consider the pumper truck the county provided in exchange for fire protection a county truck.

“But they can have it…but I will be taking all the equipment the city bought and paid for out of it,” he said.

Brown said he found it curious that the city, per state statute, gives the county 30 percent of its gaming revenues for fire protection, and the county uses a portion of the money for other things, such as garbage collection.

Lazarus said County Attorney Scott Slover informed the supervisors that state statute did not require the county to use the 30 percent of gaming revenues it receives for fire protection.

“Plus, we pay way more than we get for our contribution to fire (protection),” he said.

Lazarus said he does not feel the city and the county have made any progress on getting a fire protection agreement in place.

He said the county would try to figure out where to go from here this week.