Sunday Focus: Is consolidation solution to fire protection?

Published 1:25 am Sunday, April 2, 2017

NATCHEZ — While city and county leaders do not all agree on the current funding formula for fire protection in the community, some say a potential solution could be consolidation.

Alderman Dan Dillard said he does not believe the fire interlocal agreement was in the city’s favor. Dillard said this after he learned the county was the recipient of 50 percent of Natchez Fire Department’s calls and staff hours, but were only funding less than 30 percent of the department’s budget.

“We are at about $2.7 million for fire protection,” Dillard said. “If the county is only contributing maybe 28 percent of the revenue for fire protection, but is creating 50 percent of the calls, then there is a disparity.”

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The county’s contribution to Natchez Fire Department this year is $663,618.

Natchez Fire Chief Aaron Wesley said the contribution is not enough.

“That’s underfunded,” Wesley said. “You can’t operate a fire department with that kind of money. I’m not saying they are not holding up their end of the (ILA) bargain, but they need to do more to contribute to the city because of the number of calls in the county.”

The 10-year agreement was signed in August 2013. Adams County Board Attorney Scott Slover said the agreement is fair and entered upon at the advice of a consulting firm then-Mayor Butch Brown obtained.

Board of Supervisors President Mike Lazarus said whatever people’s opinion of the agreement, it is binding.

“I know some of the aldermen want to look and try to get out of it, but that deal is made,” Lazarus said. “If we would sit down and talk like grown-ups, instead of threatening to pull out of an agreement, everything would be fine.

“We are all serving the same people.”

Lazarus said he had been told that calls being counted against the county included calls where a fire truck never left the station or began a route and turned around because the county volunteer firefighters had handled the situation.

Wesley, however, said canceled calls do not count against the county.

“That wouldn’t count against the county,” Wesley said. “We would list that as a canceled call. It only counts against the county if we respond and do any work.”

Lazarus said he thinks when the E911 dispatch is consolidated, the situation would improve because the city would not be called in situations the volunteers could handle.

“Our volunteers have stepped up a great deal,” Lazarus said. “I believe everyone realizes that.”

Dillard said he thinks it could be possible consolidated dispatch could have some impact, but he said he was not sure it would be a complete fix.

“You have to be a cost manager and look at the services you are providing,” Dillard said. “Can the city continue to do this? It is getting tougher and tougher every year.”

If revenues can’t be increased, at some point Dillard said the city would have to look at reducing services. Dillard said reducing the service area could also help the city with a fire rating problem it is facing.

“Those areas would be those outside the city,” Dillard said. “If the city has a fire truck chasing a garbage fire, and you have another fire going up inside the city, the potential property loss is a heck of a lot more than in the county because of how close buildings are together.”

While Mayor Darryl Grennell said he believes the agreement for fire protection between the county and city is fair, Grennell said he would like to see more cooperation — namely, consolidation.

“(Mike Lazarus) and I have talked about the possibility of building two new fire stations, one on the north end of the county and one on the south,” Grennell said. “What that will do is it will help the county in terms of establishing fire ratings outside the city limits, which would help homeowners with their fire (insurance) premiums.

“I think it would be a win-win for everyone. That’s something we need to focus on and talk about in terms of the future of fire protection in Natchez-Adams County.”

Lazarus said he would also like to look at the county going all-in on fire protection with the city.

“We need to have some public meetings on that,” Lazarus said. “I believe that is what fire protection is going to go to one day.”

Wesley said the idea of one fire department between the county and the city was a great idea.

“We really need it,” he said. “Let the city man these departments and then everyone would have the same response time. It would be better for both the city and the county.”

Wesley said he would like to see two more stations built, one near Kingston and the other near the U.S. 61 and U.S. 84 intersection in the north part of the county.

“E911 is coming together and it’s time for everything else to come together,” Wesley said. “We have to continue to talk about it so that we can be able to do what will work better for the whole community.”