story by Aric Mitchell
While cuts took center stage at Thursday night’s second of three budget meetings for 2012, the Fort Smith Board of Directors is leaning toward pay bumps for at least 454 current city employees, who have not received salary increases since 2009.
Another 292 city employees have received increases in 2010 and 2011, but these were given only to those below the pay grade midpoint or grossing less than $40,000 per year.
Compared to other local government entities, such as Sebastian County and Fort Smith Public Schools, the city is “way behind,” according to City Administrator Ray Gosack.
Should the board vote to grant a 2% cost of living adjustment and small merit increase for the 2012 budget, the move would take the city’s general fund to an ending balance of $2.9 million compared to the $3.9 million projected for the date ending Dec. 31, 2012. The adjusted general fund would go from 10.17% of the overall budget to 7.51%.
“We would not want to go any lower than that (7.51%),” Gosack said. “Doing so would mean we run the significant risk of having a cash flow problem in the general fund, and that a significant emergency expenditure could hurt us.”
The rest of Thursday night’s meeting was a three-and-a-half hour mirror of the Nov. 11 meeting, during which the Board scoured through 2012 proposed budget numbers from each department head in an attempt to secure funding for the Fort Smith Convention Center and come to a final proposed budget for Dec. 6 voting.
The first hour of Thursday’s event was a grueling one for Director of Utilities Steve Parke, who saw fierce opposition to each of the three requested positions he was hoping to add to the utility department.
“In industry, we have to deal with making cuts. You have 190 people, and I still think that number is sufficient. You’re the largest department in the city. If you’ve got to reevaluate where your people are best used, then do it. But I can’t see adding to what we’ve got in this economy,” director Kevin Settle said.
Parke contested: “We’re talking about restoring where we were (before making $1.2 million in budget cuts last year). We’re not really adding anything (positions). These are dedicated people. We don’t stand at the window when there’s bad weather and feel sorry for everyone having to get out in it. Our staff is always functional and very dedicated to the work. I’m sure you can appreciate that.”
“I don’t appreciate the way you worded that,” said Director Don Hutchings. “We already know they’re very dedicated to the work. We thank God for what we’ve got. We’re just saying help us in this area.”
While the board hoped to reach an agreement on Convention Center funding, the official decision was postponed until a third meeting Tuesday (Nov. 22) at 6 p.m.
There is approximately $750,000-$800,000 in funding needed for the Fort Smith Convention Center following the defeat of the 1% prepared food tax on Nov. 8.
Last week, Gosack proposed a round of cuts from the General Fund that would enable the Convention Center to continue operation. The proposed cuts included $317,900 from the Fort Smith Police Department; $202,600 from the Parks Department; $202,700 from outside agency funding; and $30,800 from Senior Services.