story by Ryan Saylor
Even though budgeting season has just wrapped up for most municipal and county governments, it does not mean those governments are not still looking for ways to save money in a tough economic climate that has seen sales tax revenues remain stagnant for the very governments that depend on those funding sources to operate.
One area governments have looked to trim costs is in the area of printing.
The city of Fort Smith estimated that the cost of printing packets for the city's Board of Directors meetings would run nearly $13,125 in 2011, plus an additional $1,431 to deliver the packets to members of the Board using the city's police department.
At the time, City Clerk Sherri Gard said the city was printing about 20 Board packets each week. As a way to save money long term, she suggested moving to all-electronic delivery using city-issued iPads at a cost of $499 for each tablet. For all seven members of the Board, plus Gard, Mayor Sandy Sanders, City Administrator Ray Gosack and Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman, the cost of iPads totaled $5,489, a 62.29% decrease in cost.
The Board packets are also posted online for easy access by the media and public by 5 p.m. each Friday before a regularly scheduled meeting.
"There is no current or recurring cost to my department to provide the paperless board packet," Gard said in an e-mail to The City Wire.
But the story is much different at the Sebastian County Courthouse, where the staff does not have a hard number on how much it cost for the various packets distributed to the county's 13-member Quorum Court.
"That part of it, as far as crunching the numbers on the packets, I don't know that anybody's run the numbers on that," said Assistant County Administrator Scott Stubblefield. "We are looking at alternative ways to do that."
County Judge David Hudson said if the city's calculations placed the annual cost of printing Board packets at $13,125, he would estimate the County's cost to be higher based on having almost double the number of Quorum Court members versus city directors.
"I would imagine we're spending more than the city. We have more legislators," Hudson said. "$26,000 – that's a guess, but if the city was spending $13,000, then we probably double it. That'd be the sole basis for saying that."
The county also uses staff to deliver the packets to the various justices of peace, some of whom live up to an hour away from the main courthouse in Fort Smith.
"My staff and I do it. Several packets may go out. Sometimes, it's several inches worth of information that goes out. You're talking about a lot of time that goes out. We do not e-mail that (information) out. Everybody gets hard copies. And it is paper and it's binding clips, and I know that David (Hudson and Director of Technology Services Leslie Harris have) been looking at alternative methods,” Stubblefield explained.
One step in moving the county to electronic delivery is the long-awaited upgrade of the county's website, which will have Quorum Court meeting packets available for download for both the media and members of the public, Harris said.
"We actually have just rolled out a new website earlier (last week). …We've done a soft rollout on it now to get some preliminary impact. We've realized we need to do something. It's just getting the time and the money,” Harris said.
In order to move forward with the County's plan to follow in Fort Smith's footsteps and go fully wireless, Harris said it would require a capital appropriation from the Quorum Court in order to purchase tablet devices for use by the Quorum Court and some county staff.
It was a point echoed by Hudson.
"The only way that we could go to one format is all 13 members (of the Court) would have to be set up to support it. Otherwise, we'd have to do it in another format. We have to be able to make sure they have the information to fulfill their duty," he said. "I wouldn't want to implement it unless all concerned could embrace it. That's kind of where this is right now. I think we're trying to see if we could go all one way."
As part of the city's iPad program for the Board, Dingman said the tablets are WiFi-only, meaning the city does not front recurring costs for data plans.
Should the county choose to go the digital route but a justice of the peace not have internet availability, Hudson said providing a paper copy may be the only route to go.
"We really need to go digital, but we might still have to keep some in the paper format to make sure they have the information," he said. 'Even if we did that, it would still save money because it's not so much printing or taking out."
Stubblefield said the Quorum Court could start exploring the issue of digital packet delivery as early as February 2014.