City amends budget, replaces $122K previously cut from fire department

Published 12:28 am Sunday, March 5, 2017


NATCHEZ — Following a somewhat unexpected $400,000 increase in revenue, the Natchez Board of Aldermen has amended the city’s budget to include more than $122,000 previously cut from the fire department’s overtime budget.

The aldermen passed the budget amendment Friday during a budget meeting shortly after Magnolia Bluffs Casino President Kevin Preston presented a check to the city for approximately $1.42 million for the casino’s annual lease payment to the city.

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Preston told the board that per Magnolia Bluffs’ lease for the city-owned property on which the casino is located, the annual lease payment is to be $1 million or 4.5 percent of gross gaming revenue, whichever is greater.

With additional revenue made by the casino, Preston said, Magnolia Bluffs would pay an additional $422,000 to the city this year.

The city now plans to use money from the additional casino payment to fund money cut from the fire department budget.

The department’s budget was cut during 2016-2017 budget discussions in an effort to pass a balanced budget in September, with city officials saying the matter could be revisited once the city had a better picture of what its revenues would be for the year.

At that time, the aldermen decided to use approximately $763,000 of the anticipated $1 million lease payment to cover a deficit in the approximately $30.5 million budget.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said then she had been informed the annual lease payment would likely be more than $1 million because of increased revenues at the casino.

During budget discussions, the aldermen sought to reduce the fire department’s overtime budget to cut costs while also grappling with how to fund necessary improvements to NFD in order to keep the city’s current 5 insurance rating.

The Mississippi State Rating Bureau (MSRB) notified the city in September 2016 the city’s fire protection no longer warrants its current rating of 5 and outlined improvements that need to be made in order for the city to maintain its 5 rating.

MSRB grades municipalities and fire districts for fire insurance rating purposes. Ratings are evaluated every five years and are graded on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the best rating.

When fire ratings drop, insurance rates for residents can increase.

NFD Operations Manager Conner Burns told the aldermen Friday that for every two points the fire rating drops, insurance costs double for property owners.

While the general consensus was that overtime costs could be reduced, it became clear to city officials during discussions that overtime could not be eliminated based on the structure of the fire department’s shifts.

Burns said firefighters work an average of 56 hours a week and are required by the Fair Labor Standards Act to be paid overtime for any time worked over 52 hours.

Firefighters work 24-hour shifts, with 48 hours off.

Arceneaux-Mathis asked if the changes to the structure of the shift could save costs.

Burns said the “24 on, 48 off” is the consistent standard across the country.

That means, Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard said, that even if the fire department was to significantly increase its staff, overtime could still not be completely eliminated.

The “required overtime” cost is expected and built into the budget, Burns said, at a cost of $20,320.

Holiday pay is required because the fire department is staffed 24 hours a day every day of the year, and is a little less than $30,000 in the budget.

Traditional overtime, which includes covering spots when firefighters take sick or personal leave, is just under $37,000 in the budget.

Those costs, Burns said, are with the fire department’s current staff and do not take into account the cost of increasing staff levels to keep the city’s current insurance rating.

“If we go toward meeting the state guidelines, (the costs) would increase,” he said.

Dillard suggested the city review its interlocal agreement with Adams County that outlines the county’s contribution to paying for the city’s fire department to provide fire protection for county residents.

Burns said the county pays a little less than $620,000 annually per the 10-year agreement, which he said is approximately 22.3 percent of the department’s budget. The agreement has in it a provision, Burns said, that says the county owes the city a 3-percent penalty if county calls exceed 25 percent of the department’s total calls.

Fire calls outside the city limits, however, make up approximately 50 percent of the department’s calls and staff hours, Burns said.

The arrangement is working against the city, Dillard said.

“By the fact that we are providing coverage for the whole … county, it’s working against us,” he said.

The city cannot be expected, Dillard said, to dedicate 50 percent of its staff time to fire calls in the county, when the county is only funding less than 30 percent of the city fire department’s budget.

Additionally, Burns said he does not believe the city has a provision in the agreement to terminate it unless the county decides to do so.

Dillard asked City Attorney Bob Latham to review the contract and the city’s options for renegotiation, saying he doubted former Mayor Butch Brown agreed to an agreement of which the city could not get out.