Fort Smith working on ‘challenge’ of hiring 82 people to meet DOJ order

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 65 views 

Of the 82 people expected to be hired in coming years to implement various aspects of the programs required under the proposed consent decree between the city of Fort Smith and the United States Department of Justice, some will be in management roles and at least one may handle public relations efforts for the city.

According to Fort Smith Utilities Director Steve Parke, a large number of skilled laborers will be required to get the city in compliance with the Clean Water Act which could have the city exiting the DoJ's oversight in as little as 12 years.

Michelle Cernak, owner of Westark Plumbing in Fort Smith, said hiring such a large number when there is already a plumber shortage in the region would be a challenge.

"There are not enough plumbers in this area to handle what the city is saying is going to happen. And where the hell they'll find those 80 people, I have no idea. And I have no idea if they're clerical or mechanical or what."

Parke said in all likelihood, the utilities department would take extraordinary steps to hire the required number of individuals to fill a variety of positions within the department in coming years.

"We're still going to work through the staffing and recruitment plan," Parke said, adding that discussions with the Justice Department have to this point focused on getting agreeable terms with the consent decree and are just now starting to focus on staffing levels tied to implementation.

"We're just now looking at tasks as for how to complete the (scope of work) within the consent decree. We know it's a challenge, so (we may do) a job fair type concept or (start) developing a recruitment or hiring plan shortly after we make this next presentation to the Board."

In a presentation to the Board on Monday (Dec. 1), Parke outlined a plan to hire 82 individuals from 2015-2018 divided among the following categories:
• Projects & operations management (20);
• Treatment plant and pump O&M (14);
• Line repair & SSO emergency response (13);
• Information management (9);
• FOG (fats, oil and grease) programs (9);
• Line cleaning & assessment (7);
• Private lines (4);
• Comprehensive training (5); and
• Root control (1).

In the area of private lines, Cernak raised the question of detection of damaged private lines and enforcement of mandatory needed repairs.

Parke said smoke testing would allow the city to detect problems, notify property owners of the issues. One of the four hired to deal with private line issues would follow up and report of repairs to private lines as part of the consent decree requirements should the settlement requiring capital investment of more than $200 million and fines of $300,000 be approved by the Board.

At least one staffer in the department will handle public relations activities tied to the private line repairs and possible replacements that would be required, which Parke told the Board Monday could range in price from $1,500 to $3,000 depending upon the level of repair needed to any damaged private pipe.

"This includes the individual who will be managing the public relations portion of that – someone who answers questions, assists homeowners through the process, someone who is tracking notification processes, receiving information for when work is completed, data entry and following up if there is a milestone date if there is a (set time) to complete it."

The staffers in that office will also focus on inspection of private line repairs to make sure it meets codes.

A concern by Mark Chamberlain, owner of May Avenue Plumbing of Fort Smith, was that the city's $400,000 fund to be established to help low income property owners pay for needed repairs to bring the entire system up to standard would not go far enough.

Parke said the amount is set fourth in the consent decree and is not a separate stand alone program, funded by sewer users, whose bills are already projected to double to pay for consent decree projects.

Chamberlain also expressed concern that the program would not be responsive enough to the timeliness of repairs needed, noting that a waiting period to have an application approved for assistance may do nothing to help owners in need of emergency repairs.

But Parke said all of that would be taken into consideration.

"The program hasn't been written yet," he explained. "We proposed it as part of the consent decree to have that program, but we have a period of time to write that program, how it'll function and then submit it to the EPA for their approval. It's concepts (right now), but not written, submitted and approved. We need to do those steps."

Parke said cost estimates for how much it will cost to hire staff are unknown at this point, but said not all staff would be retained for the long term and would instead consist of permanent staff, contracted labor and consultants.

"We don't want to staff up with just city personnel," he said. "Some of this work is resolved during the consent decree and some is ongoing. So we don't want to staff all in house and then let people go. Those types of staffing, we've analyzed. But things with us from now on, operations and those sort sof things, those are in house and can adapt to ever changing needs."

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