Fort Smith fire, software systems top board session

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 76 views 

Big ticket items were the order of business during Tuesday’s (Nov. 8) study session of the Fort Smith Board of Directors.

The first item was to review analysis by Dallas-based The Azimuth Group of the city’s financial system. The existing system, now managed by Data-Tronics, a subsidiary of Fort Smith-based Arkansas Best Corp. (NASDAQ: ABFS), was first custom made for the city in the late 1970s.

David Eisenlohr and Jerry Tweedy, the Azimuth managing partner and partner, respectively, and their team began in the summer to analyze the city’s financial processing system. The city paid about $30,000 for the study, said City Administrator Ray Gosack.

“The public sector software market contains various software packages that offer improved functionality at a lower cost than the current system,” noted the primary finding in the 45-page “Report of Findings & Recommendations.”

A system replacement process should begin soon, noted a report recommendation. The report also said the city “lacks a comprehensive information technology plan.”

One problem with the existing system is that it does not allow all city departments to seamlessly work within the financial system, with Tweedy saying some departments use other software as “shadow systems” to keep track of their respective finances.

Eisenlohr and Tweedy admitted that moving away from Data-Tronics is to move away from a local company that has been a provider for a long time. They also said moving to a comprehensive new system would take time and may come with a few hitches. Using a commercial application would also require the city to hire one person for system support.

“There is not an easy button out there,” Tweedy said.

The upfront cost of around $1.4 million also is not easy, Tweedy and Eisenlohr noted, but could result in savings of $400,000 in five years. Once the payoff is achieved, the Azimuth report suggests the city could save about $350,000 a year compared to what it is now paying for financial system services through Data-Tronics.

City Directors Pam Weber and Kevin Settle said they wanted more time to review the Azimuth analysis. City Director Philip Merry Jr. said he will have to “find something very profound” in terms of savings or functionality before he could vote to move away from Data-Tronics.

A new financial software system may be the easy pill to swallow.

Fort Smith Fire Chief Mike Richards is proposing more than $8.5 million in fire service improvements needed to modernize the system and help the city maintain its ISO 2 rating. If the city does not act to fund fire system improvements, Richards said, it will lose its ISO 2 rating in 2013, and insurance premiums will rise throughout the city.

Richards’ plan, which he first presented to the board earlier this year, would see in the next 2-3 years the expenditure of $3 million on a new fire station at Chaffee Crossing (see image below), $4.305 million for three pumper trucks and three ladder trucks, and $1.246 million for upgrades at existing fire stations.

The annual expense for the city’s fire department will increase by about $900,000 when the new station and about 12 new firefighters are hired. That expense is not expected to kick in until late 2013 or early 2014.

New in Richards’ plan presented Tuesday are the upgrades to the 10 existing fire stations.

“Most of our current fire stations are approaching 40 years old and in need of significant repairs,” Richards noted in his report. “Eight of ten fire stations (1 through 6 & 8 through 9) have never had any upgrades or major remodeling since they were built in the 1970’s.”

Also, the backup generators at nine of the 10 fire stations are so old that replacement parts are not available.

To pay for the fire system improvements, the Board of Directors may call a special election for early 2012, to let voters choose whether to extend an existing 1% sales tax and redirect some of the revenue to fire protection. In a separate question on the ballot, voters would also decide whether to redirect the rest of the 1% sales tax revenue to fund improvements to the city’s wet-weather sanitation system.