A light agenda gave way to a spirited town hall session at the Jan. 6 meeting of the Fort Smith Board of Directors, and there was one main topic on everyone’s mind: a consent decree that could end up tripling the sewer volume usage charge on monthly water department bills by 2026.
The City Wire received a redacted water bill from city staff that is due on Jan. 16. The bill, for $44.39, contains approximately $9.63 in sewer volume usage charges. It’s this number that could triple by 2026, thus resulting in a 43% increase of the the same bill to $63.65.
Rate increases would not be the same for every citizen and could vary in amount.
Ten Fort Smith residents signed up to speak out against the increases. They were backed with a roomful of applause as they questioned how city leaders could “kick the can down the road” for so long.
Jack Swink began with a call for “transparency and accountability.”
“Fort Smith families have the lowest median household income compared to all other similar-sized Arkansas cities,” Swink said. “Many of these families are on limited incomes and strict budgets, and these families have more than fulfilled their obligation not only in providing sales tax revenue to fix the wastewater and sewage to date, but also the revenue to fund pension program departments at city hall that are now inadequate. Any additional rate hike or tax increases should be unacceptable to the citizens of Fort Smith and should not be allowed.”
Swink said on Feb. 1 he and others from the Take Back the Fort 2015 Facebook group would begin petition efforts to change the city’s form of government to one where “the Mayor would have actual decision-making authority and, because he is directly elected by the citizens, he would be accountable to the people.”
Fort Smith operates through an elected board of directors and appointed City Administrator Ray Gosack, who was absent at Tuesday night’s meeting. It’s commonly referred to as a city administrator form of government.
The Facebook page featured 336 likes as of Tuesday night. Petitioners would need 2,517 signatures to trigger a special election to change the city’s form of government.
Citizen Pat Lynch noted that the city administrator system, present in Fort Smith since 1967, had been responsible for “kicking the ball down the field.” While stopping short of saying it was time to change the form of government, he did say that “if the present form of government wants to stay here, they’re going to have to take a hard look at the budget priorities in everything they do, every department.”
“There are some places that I’ve found recently that have been subject to overreach and underperformance. A lot of this code enforcement is driving people to live somewhere else other than Fort Smith,” Lynch said.
Lynch said he believes the city is relying too much on “professional administrators” and that a “mayoral form of government might be more responsive to the people.”
Don Bales inquired as to whether the city had looked at federal grant money and aid to help with the $480 million EPA settlement so the brunt of the costs weren’t taken on by city residents. To this Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman, sitting in for Gosack, said that the city had not.
“The consent decree has just recently been filed,” Dingman said, “so the problem for us at this point has just recently been defined. Whether there are grants available or not, I am not aware. But we haven’t done any investigation to examine that at this point.”
Asked if the city had inquired about any monies that might be available, Dingman said, “I do not believe so.”
On Monday, the EPA released details of the settlement noting that over the next 12 years, it would cost the city of Fort Smith $255 million “plus the cost of routine operation and maintenance” (an additional $225 million) to correct violations of the Clean Water Act.
Also Tuesday night, Mayor Sandy Sanders and Directors Tracy Pennartz, Kevin Settle, and Don Hutchings were sworn in with Settle being reappointed as Vice-Mayor.
Directors unanimously approved a resolution certifying local government endorsement of ArcBest Corporation into the Tax Back Program along with a number of rezoning ordinances. The measure is a formality in providing state incentives to assist in a $30 million expansion of the ArcBest corporate presence in Fort Smith. That expansion is expected to add just under 1,000 jobs.
Directors voted against an ordinance establishing prices and fees for grave spaces and services at Oak Cemetery. That ordinance failed 5-2.