Sebastian County officials review paper costs, water park questions

story by Ryan Saylor

Tuesday (Jan. 21) saw the Sebastian County Quorum Court move closer to issuing meeting packets in digital form. The night also included questions of County Judge David Hudson about revelations that a consultant brought into speak to the Quorum Court and Board about amenities at Ben Geren Aquatics Center actually raised concerns about the projects budget, but was told to keep his opinions on the budget quiet.

At a separate meeting of the Fort Smith Board of Directors, the Board approved issuance of about $35 million in bonds before moving to set an early date for City Administrator Ray Gosack's next performance review.

The Quorum Court took up the issue of moving to digital meeting packets during discussion of an appropriation ordinance to come before the Court for a vote in February.

During the discussion of the move to digital, County Infrastructure Administrator Kevin Smith highlighted how the county could expend about $10,000 on equipment, including iPads for Court members to receive the digital meeting materials and an updated wireless network so they could access online material from the Quorum Courtroom on the second floor of the court house.

Justice of the Peace Danny Aldridge said the move, which saw all members of the Court voting to move forward with the proposal with the exception of Justice of the Peace John Spradlin, would save the county at least $15,000 a year in printed material costs, though he said the number would probably be significantly higher.

"At this point in time, the Quorum Court is getting a printed copy of the agenda and all of these backup documents for it," he said. "During the budget cycle, we're talking several reams of paper in one packet."

During the research on moving from paper to digital, County Director of Technology Services Leslie Harris said she had been in close contact with Fort Smith officials about the city's transition to all-digital meeting packets, which was estimated to have saved the city about $13,000 each year.

She said aside from intensive training of technology-challenged Quorum Court members, there would likely not be much in the way of costs or any other downsides to making the move.

"The biggest hurdle will be training," she said. "You have to come up with a good training plan to get these guys comfortable. One-on-one (training) will probably be most effective."

Once an appropriation ordinance is approved next month, Harris said equipment could be ordered, installed and training could begin on county-issued iPads or other tablet devises as soon as May.

"We just didn't expect it to happen this fast," she said.

Before the meeting was adjourned, Justice of the Peace Shawn Looper called attention to an article published earlier Tuesday by The City Wire that highlighted the city's attempts to keep water park consultant Kent Lemasters concerns about possibly-inflated numbers tied to the Ben Geren Aquatics Center budget quiet. Looper said not being provided the information made it tough for him to effectively do his job as a justice of the peace.

"Had I known he wrote that in an e-mail, I would have asked him how he plans on saving $3 or $4 million. But we didn't have that information at that joint meeting."

Looper added, "It's a little unsettling to vote on a project and then to be blindsided with this."

"I didn't blindside anybody with anything, Shawn,” Hudson responded. “The numbers on this, I'm not even sure what the background on…my involvement was to meet with this gentleman after the joint meeting. He did make some comments relative to cost. The main focus of that meeting was features."

Hudson, who was copied on an e-mail from Fort Smith City Administrator Ray Gosack that instructed city staff to keep Lemasters from discussing his concerns regarding the budget before the Quorum Court and the Board of Directors, said he was unaware of any e-mails regarding cost concerns.

"Yeah, I don't know about any e-mail. There may have been some discussion about what the focus of the meeting was because this project has gone for a whole year. We wanted to focus on making a decision (on amenities and design), which is what happened."

At Tuesday's meeting of the Fort Smith Board of Directors, Directors approved the issuance of bonds tied to a March 2012 sales tax measure.

The debt, which was sold on the bond market Tuesday, averaged an interest rate of 2.96%, according to Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman, who added that demand for the more than $34 million in bonds was so strong that nearly $81 million in orders came in — ensuring all of the city's bonds sold with no problem.

Dingman said the reason for the city's delay in issuing the bonds approved in 2012 was due to certain regulations placed on the city by the Internal Revenue Service.

"When you issue a bond, you only have so much time to (use) the money until the IRS starts giving you trouble about interest and all sorts of stuff," he said. "I think we had authorization for $155 million or whatever the number was and we issued the bulk of them just after that election. But we knew we wouldn't be able to spend them all fast enough in order to satisfy their regulations, so we deferred the second phase of it until we were ready for the money."

The bonds issued Tuesday will fund the city's continuing efforts at wet weather drainage improvements, as well as other sanitation improvements.

Tuesday's meeting also saw City Director Pam Weber bring forward a motion to conduct an early performance review of City Administrator Ray Gosack, whose last performance review was in July 2013, a review that resulted in Gosack receiving a 2.5% pay bump to an annual salary of $153,237.50, plus a car allowance of $5,400. Gosack was not scheduled to have another performance review until June.

As for details about what will be discussed during Gosack's performance review, no one will know unless Board members decide to dish on details of the meeting after the fact due to personnel matters being discussed behind closed doors in executive session.

Asked why she called for a review, which will take place during the Board's regularly scheduled Feb. 4 meeting, Weber did not provide details.

"No comment on personnel," she said. "There's some things that I wanted to discuss with the administrator. That's all I'm going to say."

Weber went on to say, "A performance review is not something you take lightly."

City Director Keith Lau, who seconded the motion to place Gosack's performance review on the Feb. 4 agenda, would not provide specifics as for why he seconded Weber's motion, though he said he had been mulling the issue for some time.

"I can't say because it's a personnel issue," he said. "For me, it was a previously discussed issue."

Lau said his desire to put Gosack through his sixth performance review since 2011 was about philosophy, though stopping short of explaining what exactly that meant.

"Mine is a philosophical…what I'm wanting to do is a philosophical issue. It's about…Of course, that's probably all I need to say. I better not say."