Van Buren Mayor denies water adjustment deal

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 74 views 

Finger pointing surrounding Van Buren water payments — or lack thereof — related to a 2009 “true-up” assessment took an odd turn Tuesday night when Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman was alleged to have struck a pre-2010 general election deal with a former Fort Smith City Administrator.

The Fort Smith Board of Directors voted Tuesday (Dec. 6) to immediately pay Van Buren $30,000 in a rate adjustment — true up — for 2010 and to have city staff negotiate with Van Buren over the $834,000 that Fort Smith says is still outstanding for 2006 through 2009.

True-ups are geared to cover changes in operating costs that may increase or decrease the cost of water. Van Buren Municipal Utilities Commission Chairman C.E. Dougan has said Fort Smith officials missed an August 2010 deadline to provide the Van Buren commission details on the 2009 true up.

Van Buren has agreed to pay Fort Smith for $581,000 in true-ups for 2006-2008, but does not believe it owes a $253,000 true-up for 2009.

During Tuesday’s Fort Smith Board meeting, City Director Pam Weber read a letter written by former Fort Smith City Director Cole Goodman. In the letter, Goodman mentioned a rumor he heard that Mayor Freeman and former Fort Smith City Administrator Dennis Kelly cut a deal prior to the November 2010 general election. The inference is that Freeman did not want to deal with a possible water rate increase in Van Buren before the election.

Freeman told The City Wire that not only is the rumor untrue, but he is disappointed that Goodman and Weber gave the rumor such a public stage.

“You know, I would have appreciated the courtesy of someone just picking up the phone and asking me about it (alleged Kelly meeting),” Freeman said. “But instead, we want to throw this (rumor) out in a meeting? Why would you even do that? What does that benefit anyone?”

Continuing, Freeman noted: “If I tried to govern and make decisions in Van Buren based on gossip and innuendo, we’d be spinning our wheels.”

Kelly denied he cut any deal with Freeman.

“In passing (at a meeting) I did say to him (Freeman) that we should begin the negotiations after the hectic holidays ended. … But in terms of any deal being cut, no, nothing like that happened,” Kelly said.

Freeman said he does not remember having that discussion with Kelly.

"The first I knew anything about a true up was when you ran the story on The City Wire and my wife read it and asked me if Van Buren really owed that much money," Freeman said.

Kelly also countered charges that his delay on the matter is a reason the true up deadline was not met. He said when asked by Finance Director Kara Bushkuhl and Fort Smith Utilities Director Steve Parke about pursuing the true up, he said he told them to not enter negotiations, but simply bill the true based on the agreement. (See Kelly’s complete statement at the end of this story.)

“My bottom line was, ‘Follow the contract,’” Kelly said of his instructions to Bushkuhl and Parke. “Why they didn’t follow up on that, I don’t know, you’ll have to ask them that.”

Kelly said did seek to avoid true up negotiations before the 2010 election because he didn’t want municipal candidates on “either side of the river” to cause negotiations to become “all wrapped up in politics.”

Freeman said he will “continue to work hard” to ensure that the recent years of improved relations between Fort Smith and Van Buren don’t suffer because of the true up issue.

“I have a great relationship with Mayor Sanders. I have a great relationship with Mr. Gosack. And I have a great relationship with several members on that (Fort Smith) board. So I’m not going to let that (Goodman rumor) hurt the relationship,” Freeman said.

Goodman said Wednesday he has no regrets about having his letter read.

“Nothing was meant personally, but I think not paying the money owed to the city of Fort Smith now for four years, that is not a rumor. … If it’s upset him, I apologize for that, but I think they ought to pay their bill,” Goodman said.

Freeman said he has no intention to get involved in any decision by the Van Buren Municipal Utilities Commission about the 2009 true up.

E-mail from former Fort Smith City Administrator Dennis Kelly to City Director Pam Weber:
Pam:  This is in response to your request for a clarification on my position at the time I was the City Administrator regarding the "true up" costs for water sales to the City of Van Buren.  I have been in Florida for the past three months and have not been aware of the discussion going on within the city organization regarding this matter; I did  receive a phone call from Mitzi Kimbrough, Internal Auditor, asking me my version of what transpired from a conversation I had with Public Works Director Steve Parks and Finance Director Kara Bushkul that occured around September or October, 2010.  The following represents, in essence, what I told Mitzi a couple months ago:

Steve and Kara came to my office and asked basically two questions:  one, should we bill Van Buren for their water for 2009 and two, should we start negotiations or discussions to collect the past bills (I believe it was for years ’06, ’07 and ’08 and the amount was well over $500,000).  I distinctly and clearly recall my response to the two of them:  FOLLOW THE CONTRACT AND SEND THE BILL FOR ’09! [emphasis added] and secondly, do not involve yourselves in negotiations or discussions on collecting the past bills.  The collection issue was going to be handled by me and the Board after the first of the year.

As to why the bill did not go out in a timely fashion, you will have to ask them. In my mind it was a fairly simple task. Steve provides the gallons consumed and gives that number to Kara and she interfaces that with the contract, generates a billing statement and sends it out.

I am by copy of this e-mail to Ray Gosack extending professional courtesies of keeping him informed of a communication between myself and one of the elected officials of his governing body as well as copying other members of the Board.

Hope this helps clarify the issue.