City, county fire protection agreement on then off

Published 12:06 am Wednesday, September 12, 2012

NATCHEZ — After a back-and-forth about fire protection Tuesday and votes by both the city and county boards, it appears the two entities will not have an interlocal fire agreement after Sept. 30.

The Natchez Board of Aldermen unanimously voted at its Tuesday morning meeting to approve the draft of the fire protection sent to the city by the county, with one exception that the county voted not to accept Tuesday afternoon.

Mayor Butch Brown asked that city approval come with the exception that the Natchez Fire Department would only respond to structure and life-threatening fires in the county. Brown said the county’s volunteer fire departments would be charged with handling brush, grass, vehicle and other non-life-threatening fires.

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The county supervisors determined at a meeting Tuesday afternoon that paying the city approximately $576,000 for only structure fires when the county averages just 24 structure fires a year was unacceptable.

The supervisors unanimously voted to present the city with a counteroffer to provide full fire protection coverage for approximately $48,000 for the next two months while the county implements its plan to provide its own fire protection.

After the city’s budget hearing Tuesday evening, the mayor and some aldermen said they would definitely not grant the county’s request for a month-by-month fire protection contract. Most of the aldermen expressed frustration they had not been included in the supervisors meeting.

Brown said the county could take the city’s offer to provide fire protection for structure fires and life-threatening situations for a year, or leave it.

Brown said the city’s fire department would be instructed not to respond to any calls at all in the county if the agreement was not signed by Sept. 30.

“It’s happened all over the nation,” he said. “It happened in Vicksburg, the mayor told (the firefighters) to stop at the city limits, and they sat there and watched a house burn down.”

Providing fire protection for county residents is incumbent on the county, not the city, Brown said. He said he felt sorry for the county, and also the firefighters, who have had to suffer, he said, through the lackadaisical leadership on fire protection by the county.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis questioned why the county waited so late to attempt to put together a fire program since the current fire protection dispute is the virtually the same as last year.

“It’s amazing to me that they need to do it in two months, when they had all of (this fiscal) year to do it,” she said.

“They are playing politics with people’s lives,” Mathis added.

Without the county’s $576,000 contribution to the fire department, Brown said he is not sure if the department will have to layoff firefighters.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do at this point; we’ve only just found out about this,” he said.

The county, Emergency Management Director Stan Owens 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 county has proposed to start its firefighters out at $14 an hour. Owens said the county would also need to hire an assistant fire coordinator, who would eventually become county fire chief. That salary would be approximately $40,000.

Supervisor Mike Lazarus, who said he has already been approached by Natchez firefighters who want to work for the county, said the pay rate might entice city firefighters to come work for the county.

But staffing and who responds to which calls is not the only issue up for debate.

Owens said most of the equipment at the dispatch unit at the Natchez Police Department, which handles law enforcement and fire calls, is county-owned. If the city no longer provides fire protection, he said the county might use that equipment for its own purposes.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith said she believes there is some dispute about who owns what equipment, and she said City Attorney Hyde Carby is looking into the matter.

Brown mentioned again Tuesday night that 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.

Carby said, with a copy of the original fire agreement in hand, that the 30 percent of gaming revenues the city provides the county are to be used for fire protection.

Lazarus said Monday 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.

Supervisor David Carter said although it may seem that the city and county are in a tug-of-war over money, for him, it is not about the money.

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

Carter said the main reason for that denial for him was that the city would not provide Natchez firefighters to staff county fire stations. Doing so, supervisors have said, would increase response time to remote areas of the county.

“I, speaking as just one supervisor, would have gladly voted for that extra $132,000 if it had included manning rural county fire stations,” Carter said.

Brown said it was not feasible for the city to provide full-time firefighters for the volunteer stations because it would deplete the firefighters needed inside the city at all times.

The county’s plan for a fire program, as drafted by Owens, includes 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 plan outlines needs for Internet, television and computer needs at Foster Mound and Kingston stations, as well as more protection for other areas in the county.

With operating and equipment costs, Owens estimates the fire program will cost the county approximately $764,000. That cost, he said, should lower in the second year, and the county could possibly receive grants in the second year as well.

Carter and other supervisors met with Kingston volunteer firefighters Tuesday night, and he said the firefighters, who live in Natchez, Adams County, Vidalia and other places, are ready for the challenge.

Carter said the county is also looking at requesting help from neighboring Jefferson and Franklin counties for fire help until the county program can get fully up and running.

Carter said the county would also have a community forum at one of the fire stations to allow the public to ask questions and get fully informed on the county’s fire program plan.

Through all of the bickering, Carter said, the city and the county have to be conscientious that firefighters are still the ones who do the job.

“We respect and appreciate them, and they need to be protected throughout all this, and they will be,” Carter said. “One thing I think to keep in mind is that this is not the city versus the county, the majority of the people I represent are inside the city limits. In no way would we want to jeopardize anything with city fire.”

“I hate it’s become a squabble, but I think the aldermen, just like we are, are just trying to protect the people they represent,” Carter said.