Fort Smith Board rejects legal review, approves fire training center

story by Ryan Saylor

Fort Smith City Director Philip Merry's third attempt to get a review of the city's legal billings and the formation of a committee to review whether the city would be better served by in-house legal counsel or the current arrangement with paying the Daily and Woods Law Firm to provide legal services went nowhere at Tuesday's (June 17) meeting of the Fort Smith Board of Directors.

Merry had previously made an attempt during a regular Board meeting to have the item placed on the agenda, but was sidelined by Mayor Sandy Sanders who said it was not a proper motion since Merry was attempting to add the item at the end of a June 3 meeting.

A study session on June 10 resulted in the item being placed on Tuesday's agenda with a motion by Merry and a second by City Director Pam Weber, though a procedural move later in the week by City Director Mike Lorenz and backed by City Directors George Catsavis, Andre Good, Keith Lau, Mike Lorenz and Vice Mayor Kevin Settle removed the item from Tuesday's agenda.

The only two to vote in favor of adding the item to Tuesday's meeting agenda were Merry and Weber, with all directors with the exception of Good voting against the motion. Good arrived late to the meeting. Settle, who ran Tuesday's meeting in the absence of Sanders, stated all seven directors would have to approve the addition of the item for it to be an agenda item Tuesday. Since the item failed to receive seven votes, Settle said it would instead be placed on the July 1 meeting agenda, though it conceivably could be removed again should four directors contact the city clerk requesting its removal.

In other business, the Board approved a contract worth $1.176 million for Beshears Construction to build a fire training tower facility for the Fort Smith Fire Department at the Fort Smith landfill. According to Fort Smith Fire Chief Mike Richards, the department will use Act 833 funds, which are generated from an insurance premium tax, to build and operate the facility for the department instead of going out of town for training.

The facility would also be made available for a fee to other area fire departments, he added. Other city departments would also likely make use of the building, including the Fort Smith Police Department's SWAT Team, Richards said.

In addition to the initial construction cost, Richards said he was aware that the building would require yearly maintenance and operations expenditures, in some cases having operational costs as a result of outside groups using the facility.

"We're very aware of the fact that there will be some costs involved and we'll have to recover those costs for the wear and tear, but we're willing to work with anyone to do that. One of the important things about this facility is we intend to run it without using any additional general fund money. Once we get the facility built, it's our intention to take our Act 833 money that we receive each year and that's between $80,000 and $90,000, and put that back into the operation of the facility so we don't put an additional hardship on the general fund."

Page 54 of the 2014 Budget Supplement shows that the fire department already budgets $50,770 annually for operations related to training, which Richards said would no longer be spent on outside training once the training tower construction is complete. He again made the point that the operations costs would be completely covered by the Act 833 funding, though salaries for trainers would not come from Act 833. The budget supplement shows a total training personnel budget of $173,150, which includes $137,570 in salaries.

Based on the cost of the structure and the budget for training operations, the fire department would be able to recoup the cost of construction in approximately 24 years.