Fort Smith Board talks landscaping, 2013 budget

by The City Wire staff ( 2 views 

The 2013 city budget hearings took a combative tone Thursday night (Nov. 15). The meeting, which was held at the Bartlett Community Room in the Fort Smith Police Department (FSPD), heated up over streetscaping.

While discussing the budget for downtown Fort Smith, Director Pam Weber brought up a request from sub-contractor Frank Sharum, who hoped the city could do something to assist in costs for his over-purchasing of landscaping materials for the federally-funded, Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department (AHTD)-administered project from 9th to 13th Streets.

"I know we're tight on funds but last spring I received a call from a contractor, who was doing the downtown streetscape," Weber said. "We had several meetings, and he purchased quite a bit of materials. He got the downtown streetscape project, and we met and came up with a plan and talked, and come to find out, they're designated funds. He said the budget was big enough that he could do all – spruce up what we needed him to spruce up. He made plans to spruce it up, went out and purchased quite a bit and then we found out we could only use it in the east end of the alley."

Mike Alsup, director of parks and recreation for the city of Fort Smith, said the sub-contractor "hasn't talked to me, and he hasn't talked to the engineer about it," to which Weber replied, "Well, he's talked to me many times."

Weber continued: "And I wasn't even involved in it. He just called me because I had done some plantings down there."

Director Philip Merry remarked that Sharum didn't have "a pleasant experience in dealing with the city."

That's when City Administrator Ray Gosack had had enough.

"Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I'm not going to stand for that," Gosack said. "We had a contract with the contractor (Forsgren, Inc). It was for a specific project with a specific area, and the sub-contractor (Sharum) to the general contractor went out and bought more material that he thought he could use in other areas beyond that project area using that federal money that is designated for the specific area. So there's no difficulty doing business with the city."

Gosack continued: "We are following the contract. What the sub-contractor should have done was work through the general contractor, and he did not do that. He made some assumptions. Thought he could use money from the contract area in other areas of the downtown, and we cannot do that with federal money. We would violate those requirements, so the city is not the one who's difficult to work with."

Director Kevin Settle chastised the subject as "inappropriate" and told Weber "He (Sharum) shouldn't meet with you. He should meet with the general (contractor) and the city administration, not a director. A director should not be in the middle of this."

Weber denied she was "in the middle of it," to which Settle shot back, "But you said you were."

"He called me about what he could do down there to complement what I had done," Weber said.

Gosack explained once more that any use of the funds for the 9th to 13th Street portions of the streetscaping project in another area would have been "a violation," after which Mayor Sandy Sanders directed the board to the next section of the budget.

In comments to The City Wire following the event, Settle said the discussion "didn't follow the protocol of what should have happened."

"This is not the venue in which it should have been brought up. It should have been brought up through the city administrator by the sub- or the general contractor. A director should not be in the middle of a contractor because he bought more parts than he should have, and that's unfortunate."

Settle continued: "This was the wrong venue for this discussion, and it should have been brought up in a separate way, and we shouldn't be trying to buy someone's products because they overspent. They didn't get a P.O. from the city or the general contractor. And then to ask us to buy something, it just was not the right time to do it. We're in budget talks trying to have a balanced budget and fund as much as we can. I just think it was the wrong venue."

Also Thursday, Ward 1 Director-Elect Keith Lau repeatedly warned board members that the city would need to address the shortfall in the general fund ending balance in 2013 in light of 2014 projections.

Estimated year-end excess in the general fund for 2012 of $13,469 will combine with the beginning balance of $6.879 million to produce an end-of-year balance of $6.892 million. In 2013, the proposed budget projects there will be a $3.308 million deficiency in the general fund, bringing the ending balance for the upcoming year to $3.583 million. This number is close to the 7.5% minimum of total expenditures for the year ($49.907 million) that is required of the general fund.

However, in 2014 expenditure requests rise to $51.129 million against projected revenue of $46.093 million, a $5.036 million deficiency that would effectively wipe out the general fund, closing the year with a $1.452 million deficit.

"We don't want a $0 fund balance. We want a fund balance of about $3.6 million to carry over into the next year. So really, there is a $5 million shortfall, but what it means is we're going to have to trim the spending requests," Gosack said.

Lau commented that "raising fees or cutting in to services" would be possibilities that the 2013 Fort Smith Board of Directors would have to examine, but Gosack did not appear worried following the hearing.

"There's really nothing wrong with the general fund," Gosack said. "We did some 2014 projections, and those show that if we don't reduce spending requests in 2014 it will be a problem. But every budget year we always get more spending requests than there are resources available. Part of the evolution in the budget is adjusting spending requests to match available resources. So that's what we'll do when it comes time to prepare the 2014 budget."

The police and fire departments together claim about 60% of the $49.907 million in expenses budgeted in the general fund for 2013.

The police department budget totals $17.101 million, while the fire department totals $13.886 million.

Most of the police fund will go toward patrol operations ($7.711 million) and criminal investigations ($3.004 million). Patrol operations supports 118 personnel positions (the same as 2012), while criminal investigations will remain the same as the previous year with around 42.5 personnel positions.

On the fire side, the suppression and rescue division claims $9.733 million of the overall budget, part of which supports the department’s 123 positions (the same manpower as 2011 and 2012). In addition to this allotment, the sales tax extension voters supported in March as well as a FEMA Grant the fire department secured in July will deliver another $3.151 million in budgeted funds to the department, a portion of which will support 11 additional positions from 2012 for a total of 20 overall.

The board also focused on funding for the city parks and recreation department and the Fort Smith Convention Center (FSCC).

The parks department budgeted $5.296 million for 2013 with a significant portion (approximately $2.5 million) attributed to capital outlay projects thanks to the March sales tax extension. The proposed budget shows the River Valley Sports Complex receiving the majority of these monies at $1.4 million, though the two softball fields at Ben Geren Regional Park ($893,338) will receive top priority for construction.

The remainder ($50,000) will be used for improvements to Cisterna Plaza.

The FSCC will begin its second year in 2013 under the management of the Fort Smith Advertising and Promotion (A&P) Commission. The budget shows approximately $1.5 million allotted to the Convention Center for the coming year.

The board finished deliberations Thursday night, so it will not meet for the tentative Monday (Nov. 19) date. Instead a final proposed budget will be up for vote at the Dec. 4 regular meeting.

Link here for a review of the first night of budget hearings.