Raising of Fort Smith sewer rates in a process that will more than triple the average bill by 2017 is not a problem. It’s not welcome news, but we’ve been living below costs for too long. The heartburn lies in the reality that we’re handing the extra revenue over to a city government in which competence and transparency are, respectively, uncertain and lacking.
Sewer rates for all Fort Smith customers will increase May 1 to help pay for an estimated $480 million in federally mandated sewer system improvements over the next 12 years. The rate will raise the average monthly residential bill from $19.63 now to $47.91 by January 2017. The rate hikes will help fund work needed to meet the requirements of a consent order between the city of Fort Smith and the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency. The order mandates extensive investments in new infrastructure and ongoing maintenance activities to bring the city in compliance with the Clean Water Act.
It’s folly and misspent energy to fault the Fort Smith Board of Directors for approving the rate plan. Director Kevin Settle voted against it, but did not offer a financial alternative to fund the work now mandated. It is such reluctance to accept reality that found us anywhere from 15 to 20 years behind on raising rates to cover costs and modernize our water and sewer systems. The average rate of almost $48 per month does not place the city anywhere near the high-end range of comparable cities. Again, as a city customer, I’m not happy about the hike, but there is a cost to pay if the city is to have a modern and compliant system that doesn’t pour feces, grease, oils and other undesirables into rivers, streams, roads, and backyards.
It is not folly or misspent energy to fault the Fort Smith Board for not being immensely more inquisitive about the people and programs in place for this estimated $480 million effort. Not that anyone would want to try to express this in the paltry two minutes citizens have to comment at Board meetings, but there is a growing number of citizens – and not just the indefatigable unhappy – who understand a problem exists and requires an expensive fix, but they doubt the capacity of city staff to manage the process in an efficient and cost-effective manner.
The thinking goes like this: Let’s say a division president or even a CEO of a private sector company spent more than $200 million fixing potential violations of federal law, only to find out at the 11th hour that a completely different set of violations could cost them another $480 million. In that private sector world, someone would lose their job. It would not matter if 51% or more of the cause was outside of the person’s control, at least one – probably more – division boss or vice president (if not CEO) would be dealing with the HR office to cycle out of the company.
But not in Fort Smith. No changes are made. No inquiries suggested as to a review of previous and ongoing high-dollar capital projects within the water and sewer system. We simply regroup and redirect a lot more money to those who presided over conditions that resulted in such a stiff federal order. Like a gaggle of mind-numbed Stepford Wives, we bow and accept solutions proffered by those who were in the decision chain that resulted in a $480 million federal cramdown. Therefore, some are concerned, I among them, that we are following the classic definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over again and hoping for different results.
This concern is brimming with validity. It is borne of a recent history in which what we hear from the Board and city staff is not necessarily the way it is. And that’s if we’re lucky. There are times citizens don’t get an answer. We never got a straight answer on the water “true up” debacle with the city of Van Buren. I dare you to get a straight answer as to how an $8 million waterpark became a $12 million waterpark just a few months – if not weeks – after voter approval of a tax plan funding the facility.
Remember when the city hired a consultant to talk water park costs with the Board? Remember that the consultant had concerns about the ballooning cost of the park, but was told by the City Administrator to not share his concerns with the Board?
Remember when the city staff said in September 2014 that they’d conducted an analysis of using compressed natural gas vehicles in the city fleet and determined only one vehicle was feasible? Remember when we learned that the city did not do an analysis but relied on superficial findings from a 2012 city memo?
Remember in early 2013 when city staff recommended the Fort Smith Board approve a simple groundwater well ban to mitigate minor pollution around Whirlpool’s shuttered manufacturing plant? We were told by city staff and a mayor who retired from Whirlpool, and Whirlpool-financed environmental experts that such an action would be more than enough. Remember that? At the time, Robert Jones III, an attorney representing Whirlpool, said Whirlpool was unable to clean up the contamination and a ban on drilling for groundwater wells was the only solution. There is no telling where the cancer-causing TCE would be if area property owners hadn’t raised hell about the situation and forced the Board to get serious.
Anyone want to take a stab at figuring out the city’s legal services cost now compared to alternatives?
Speaking of legal, when a Fort Smith Director wanted minor detail on the negotiations with the feds over the sewer problem, the city’s attorney said the info was confidential. As I’ve noted before, this was incredible hubris on the part of federal and local government officials. Two public entities debating the use of public money to fix a problem in the public interest with penalties and remedies outlined by public law were able to block their discussions from the public view. We in Fort Smith are most likely caught between an overreaching federal government and a city government that is out of reach.
We could travel down this sad memory lane for several more paragraphs, but by now it should be clear why many people understand that a rate hike was necessary, but wholly distrust the management in charge of ensuring the money is used wisely.
And this is not a call for a change of government. This is a call for the Board to do much more to demand competence and transparency from city staff.
I believe each Board member was truly uncomfortable with the decision to raise sewer rates. But if they do more to demand competence and transparency, that vote will be the least uncomfortable thing they do in the next few years.