Fort Smith officials talk about how to be more business friendly

story by Ryan Saylor

Development and business friendliness took center stage for much of a more than hour long brainstorming session of the Fort Smith Board of Directors on Monday night (Feb. 24).

The session, which was absent a set agenda in order to allow a free flow of ideas among Board members and the administration, started with City Director Keith Lau simply asking what the city could do to make it easier for citizens needing to do business with the municipality. He cited specific examples of individuals having trouble with permitting for construction and subsequent inspection issues.

City Director Mike Lorenz said from his perspective, it seemed that all complaints seemed to center around inspections.

"I think it truly is the difference between…an inspector knows the rules of what can and can't be done, what is code, what isn't code. But that isn't translated correctly at all,” Lorenz said.

City Director Pam Weber, who acknowledged receiving two inspection-related complaints on Monday alone, said city staff "has to be careful how we say things," adding that reducing rules and regulations already on the books as some citizens have called for would not fix the problem. She said one of the goals of the administration should be to help staff in the planning department find a way to work with customers, developing "a customer service attitude."

Among the talk of inspections, permitting and planning came ideas for expanding the city's use of online building permits to streamline the process, something City Administrator Ray Gosack said had been re-introduced to the city last year after a multi-year absence. The absence was brought on, in part, by the low usage compared to the cost of upkeep for the online portal, he said, adding that he was hopeful usage would increase with the online procedure being re-introduced.

City Director Philip Merry also floated the idea of having retired volunteers on site to help individuals and business owners find their way through the permitting process at the city offices on Garrison Avenue, though Weber said a simpler procedure would simply be to provide individuals a list of what they would need to do to fulfill the city's requirements for permitting and inspection.

During the discussion on making Fort Smith more friendly to businesses and residents, which the Board hoped would attract industry, Weber floated the idea of purchasing more items for the city locally.

"I know there's some rules on who we do business with, how we do it. But part of the things we do is we give a lot of contracts worth a lot of money and I know we have to bid those and that type of thing. But it really irritates me that we don't do local. Like we buy cars in Texas, that type of thing. And I'm wondering if there is a rationale?"

She questioned Police Chief Kevin Lindsey about why new Tahoe police cruisers for his department were not purchased locally, to which he said no local dealership had the vehicles he needed therefore necessitating buying the vehicles from a dealership outside of the Fort Smith area.

Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman said the city could look into the possibility of an ordinance that would require taking a local bid if it was within a certain percentage of the lowest overall bidder, though he said city attorneys would have to explore the legality of such an ordinance within the state of Arkansas.

Gosack did not speak against any such action, though he said it was important for the Board to keep in mind that not taking the lowest bidder on large contracts could turn into large amounts of additional taxpayer dollars being spent.

"You know, last week you awarded a sewer construction project for nearly $13 million. If you had a 5% local preference in there, you could leave three-quarters of a million dollars sitting on the table. …Arkansas used to on construction contracts, the state did have a policy allowing 5% in-state bid preference and I think they realized when you get into these multi-million projects, it's a lot of money that could be left on the table."

Other ideas discussed at the meeting included:
• Implementing a building design standard for all city-owned buildings;
• Exploring whether a casino was still a possibility along the Arkansas River near downtown;
• Possibly hiring additional city planners to fill the needs of the city; and
• Improving railroad crossing safety across the city.

The Board did ask for a resolution to be developed that would state the city's willingness to conduct itself in a more business friendly fashion.

The next brainstorming session of the Board will be held May 27.