The Fort Smith board of directors listed Interstate 49 funding as their top priority for inclusion in an expected federal economic stimulus bill.
In its Tuesday (Dec. 23) special meeting, the board also approved entering an employee benefit trust program and tentatively set an agenda for its Jan. 10 board retreat.
City staff recently provided directors with a list of 20 projects totaling more than $32.5 million. That total jumped to $422.96 million with the addition of $361 million for construction of I-49 between Alma/I-40 interchange and U.S. 71 (between Fort Smith and Greenwood). The board members then created a “Top 5” list.
The top five items are:
1. Interstate 49 — $361 million
2. Lake Fort Smith Water Treatment Plant (4 million gallon storage area) — $4.4 million
3. Lake Fort Smith Water Treatment Plant (backwash lagoon expansion) — $3.5 million
4. 1,500 foot extension of Chad Colley Boulevard at Fort Chaffee — $1.5 million
5. Neighborhood water system and fire protection improvements — $3.4 million
Watts Partners, the firm hired by the city to lobby in Washington, D.C., will use the list to petition Arkansas’ Congressional delegation to find room for the projects in an expected federal stimulus bill targeting infrastructure projects ready for quick turnaround.
“The goal (of the federal bill) is to put people to work right away,” Ray Gosack, deputy city administrator, explained to the board.
City Administrator Dennis Kelly said a lobbying trip by city staff and board members is shaping up for the second week of February. Kelly said a federal stimulus bill could see a vote by the fourth week of February.
“As many as we can get out there the better” in terms of face-to-face lobbying with key members of Congress, Kelly said.
The board also authorized the city to join the Arkansas Local Government Health Management Trust, which is administered by the Arkansas Municipal League. Kara Bushkuhl, city finance director, said moving the city’s health benefit funds provides better security for the funds and meets requirements of accepted accounting standards.
“It (moving funds to the Trust) would send the message to employers, ‘This is going to be here for you,’” Bushkuhl said.
Bushkuhl and Kelly estimated the city would pay about $350,000 a year into the Trust to meet benefit obligations.
Kelly said the Trust also gets the fund benefits “out of our hands” so the city is not tempted to use the money for purposes other than benefit payouts. The annual payment and meeting the accounting standards also could improve the city’s bond rating, Kelly said.
City directors placed economic development issues at the top of the list for discussion at the board’s Jan. 10 retreat. City Director Kevin Settle said the city’s role in regional economic development, development at Fort Chaffee and possible stimulus projects should be part of that discussion. City Director Cole Goodman requested that the city’s support of the Fort Smith Golf Classic be reviewed.
Other items mentioned as discussion items included:
• A review of the Fort Smith Convention Center, to include the expected deficit when state turnback funds expire and a look at the business model of the center.
• Discuss future water and sewer projects, especially those projects without dedicated funding.
• Review quality of place projects, to include trails, bikeways, greenways, parks and a sports complex.