Hed: Oxford aldermen, UM chancellor discuss fire protection options
By Jane Hill
OXFORD – While still not in perfect accord, Oxford city officials and University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat agreed to search for an equitable agreement over university fire protection Wednesday at a special board meeting.
Both parties responded to recent publicity surrounding university officials’ decision to dissolve a 10-year-old agreement with the city to provide fire protection and begin providing their own.
Khayat put forth possible negotiation points over the ownership of a ladder fire truck, which the university helped purchase, and the ownership of Fire Station No. 2 which sits on university property.
“We are wide open to talk about it,” Khayat said. “But we need to have a plan because the university is running out of time.”
Last year the city asked the university for an $85,000 increase in the fee $100,000 it usually pays for fire protection. The amount requested was to cover the cost of hiring more firemen to operate the ladder truck necessary to fight fires at the university’s multistoried buildings.
The city had been informed by the state fire rating bureau that nine additional firemen would be needed if the city and the university were to keep a Class 5 fire rating, said Oxford Mayor John Leslie.
The $85,000 increase would cover only part of the increase in personnel costs, Leslie said, noting that the full cost of adding nine firemen would be $297,000 annually.
However, the request for the increase arrived July 17, weeks after the university’s budget had been set for fiscal year 1995-96. Khayat, who assumed his post as chancellor July 1, declined to accept the increase.
If the contract between the city and university is fully dissolved, the university must establish its own fire department by May 1, though Khayat said Wednesday he has asked the state for an extension of that deadline.
In his presentation before the board Wednesday, the chancellor said an on-campus fire department was needed because of the university’s unique configuration, multistoried buildings, dense population and special fire prevention education needs.
“The university is a unique environment,” he said. “It would not be appropriate to ask a municipal fire department to provide for these kinds of needs.”
Oxford Fire Chief Terry McDonald defended his department, saying his firemen responded to every fire call at the university regardless of when it was issued or where it came from. He further stated that his department had provided fire inspections at campus buildings and offered to provide fire prevention education but were prevented by the University Police Department and other university officials.
The fire department still provides fire inspections of sorority and fraternity houses on campus because they are not university-owned, he said.
Khayat said he intended no offense to the Oxford Fire Department and emphasized the decision to end the fire protection agreement was not the result of a clash of wills between himself and the mayor.
“We are one community,” he said. “This is not a ‘they’ and a ‘us’ situation.”
Alderman Tom Sharpe suggested the needs of both the city and the university might be met if the state ratings bureau could be persuaded to rate the city and university separately.
“There might be a way we can join forces on this question,”Sharpe said, suggesting that university officials sit down soon with the city and Joe Shoemaker from the fire ratings bureau to discuss options.