Fort Smith Board nixes trash automation plan

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 104 views 

Rate increases could be on the way from the Fort Smith Department of Sanitation (DOS) following a 4-3 vote from the City of Fort Smith Board of Directors that ended automated refuse collection conversions in the city’s final 20 neighborhoods that had yet to change over.

Fort Smith City Administrator Ray Gosack said following Tuesday’s (June 5) meeting that any possible rate increases would occur during the 2013 budget review process.

The question that remains: how will possible rate increases be structured?

Acting at the prompting of City Director Kevin Settle, Fort Smith Department of Sanitation Director T. Baridi Nkokheli submitted four scenarios for future sanitation charges.

With current monthly charges at $14.38, a hybrid system could bump rates to $15.91 per month for each citizen starting in 2013. Finishing the automated conversion process could have reduced rates to $13.28 monthly for the same time period.

Had the DOS been able to continue the conversions, while leaving the three dissenting neighborhoods at Belle Grove, Park Hill, and May/Lecta/Sweet areas under automated collection, a rate increase to $15.03 would have been expected.

A fourth option, which would find citizens paying only for the services received, would grant automated households a $1.06 monthly reduction ($13.32 per month), while increasing non-automated households to $24.56 per month (a $10.18 hike).

During citizens forum following the meeting, Bobby Altes of Altes Sanitation committed to city directors that his company could “provide this service at the same price or less, in the alleyways for homes in these areas” and that Altes Sanitation “could lock our rate in for several years.”

The Board would have to open any private sanitation services to outside bids.

Catsavis questioned Nkokheli’s estimated rate changes, and stated he would “never support a rate increase,” echoing Merry’s statement that “four members on this board” would not vote for any rate increase as long as there was a $2 million surplus in the department.

Settle, who voted along with Good and City Director Don Hutchings against continued non-automated collection, commended Nkokheli. “Baridi’s department is debt free for the first time, and let’s keep in mind, they’re residential, commercial, industrial, and landfill operations. We don’t want to subsidize those rates for residential. It’s not what businesses want to do.”

While numbers were not available Tuesday night, Gosack admitted that the $2 million sanitation department surplus Merry spoke of, “is absorbing losses brought on by existing non-automated services.” Settle added that a vote for continuing with non-automated collection would be a vote for an eventual rate increase.

City Directors Catsavis and Steve Tyler continued to propose the possibility of private enterprise intervention during the ongoing refuse collection debate. City Director Pam Weber, who voted with Catsavis, Tyler, and City Director Philip Merry, cited that she was doing so to “fulfill a campaign promise” she’d made to a citizen, who asked her how she would vote if an individual neighborhood didn’t want the service.

Merry was more swayed by the results of a third neighborhood survey, which showed 55% of 27%, who participated (442 out of 804 respondents), wished to remain with non-automated collection, citing that it was “exemplary of the voting public.”

“I wish it were more, but that’s the best we’ve seen thus far on people being engaged,” Merry said.

City Director Andre Good was not impressed by the third survey.

“We’ve all seen numbers from the first two surveys, and it was obvious the majority in those surveys wanted automated pickup. After the third survey and thousands and thousands of dollars spent (close to $50,000, according to DOS figures), the board got only 27% feedback. Now, why do you believe we got so few back the third time?” Good said.

Speaking on that point, Nkokheli said, “We were told by attendees and some afterward, that citizens felt a sense of apathy, after hearing the board’s decision, when the majority preference was to retain automated, and even after receiving those survey results, they were overruled. There was a feeling it would not matter to this board whether they completed a survey and turned it in. That was all that was communicated to myself, staff, and field employees.”

Good told The City Wire after the meeting that he believed the vote was “an example of the vocal minority grabbing the ears of a few city directors to get their way. That’s what I’m afraid has just happened.”

Also Tuesday night, the board voted unanimously to appropriate $1.6 million in funding to the River Valley Sports Complex (RVSC) project and proceed with a grant application to have the Army National Guard contribute clearing, grading and earth-work — a value of between $250,000-$400,000 — during the summer of 2012.

Now that RVSC and the city can move forward with the application, the Army National Guard will begin the project “within 30-45 days of approval,” according to Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith and co-organizer.

The next study session of the board will take place June 12 (12 p.m.) at the Fort Smith Public Library Community Room.