Fort Smith Board reviews budget cut ideas

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 82 views 

Tuesday's (April 9) noon study session of the Fort Smith Board of Directors focused on budgetary issues in the city.

Finance Director Kara Bushkuhl addressed the city's request that all departments reduce budgets by 4%.

In an April 4 memo to City Administrator Ray Gosack and provided to the Board, Bushkuhl said the city would need to eliminate approximately $1.5 million from the city's budget.

She told Board members the reduction was necessary due to a decline in tax revenues, though she could not predict whether the decline would continue. Collections of city sales taxes and the countywide tax are 8% lower than budget estimates.

"I have talked to colleagues in other cities and they are having some negative and some positive," she said.

Bushkuhl said the unpredictability of the revenue situation means further cuts may be necessary, according to the memo provided to the Board.

Of the city departments asked to reduce revenue, the police department drew a lot of attention from Director George Catsavis. He expressed concern to Fort Smith Police Chief Kevin Lindsey regarding the chief's plan to reduce the number of police units on the streets and instead two officers into a single cruiser in most cases.

"Do you feel comfortable with this?" Catsavis asked Lindsey.

Lindsey said yes, explaining that many calls received by the department already require a response by more than one officer.

"About 90% of our calls require a backup officer and most of the beats will be covered by two-man cars," he said.

By reducing the number of cars on the street during any given time, Lindsey said there would be between eight and 10 cruisers on the streets while there are now 12 to 16.

Catsavis was not the only one expressing concern. Director Pam Weber did, as well.

"Are citizens to feel compromised?" she asked.

Lindsey went to great lengths to assure the Board that the same number of officers would be on the streets, even with his reduction of the police department's budget by $595,399, or 3.48%.

He said his officers would be freed up from paperwork duties and able to respond to more emergencies more quickly by encouraging citizens to use new services, such as online personal vehicle accident reporting. By having those options available, he said officers are more available to deal with more dire situations that may arise throughout the city.

"We are going to try to change the paradigm," he said. "If they absolutely want an officer, we'll send one."

Other budget cuts presented to the board included the parks and recreation department.

A proposed cut outlined to the Board via a memo was the closure of wading pools, which would save $8,900. Asked why he proposed closing the wading pools, Parks Director Mike Alsup said he made 4% cuts across the board, meaning no part of his department was saved or treated differently with regards to the cuts.

Director Keith Lau raised the possibility of exploring rate increases in order to address revenue shortfalls and possibly reduce cuts to services, such as the parks department.

"I think we need to look at it and make it something for our internal auditor to look at, maybe to do a study to see how much room we could increase our fees compared to other private industry," Lau said, adding that he was not necessarily in favor of the increases, but all options needed to be explored.

Specifically, he mentioned fees at Oak Cemetery, which he said are half what other privately-owned cemeteries charge. He also mentioned raising fees in other areas, such as the $2 entrance fee at Creekmore Pool, as well as franchise fees.

The discussion was preliminary and no action was taken on a potential fee increase.

In other business, the Board decided to vote at next week's regular Board meeting on a budget adjustment that would use some funds to the Employee Wellness Budget to deal with an increase in cost for catastrophic claims and specialty drugs. The adjustment to be presented at next week's meeting will be around $800,000.

Board members also signed a letter drafted by Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman asking for quarterly reports from ADEQ and Whirlpool regarding TCE contamination and the cleanup process.

Director Philip Merry said he would sign the letter, though he wants monthly updates.

Merry also expressed frustration regarding the ADEQ providing The City Wire with Whirlpool's proposed remediation plan prior to the Board being provided the same documentation.

"I haven't seen the plan. And this Board wants to do good work. I don't know how it can if it's not made privy to at least agenda of thought. I'm not trying to be a control freak. I would ask that they just kind of carve us in at the same time."

Gosack said he had already addressed the problem with ADEQ earlier in the morning and that should have resolved the situation.