Fort Smith Board cuts budget more by voting to end outside agency funding

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 106 views 

Fort Smith residents expecting more information on the future of the City Administrator position left the Fort Smith Public Schools Service Center disappointed Tuesday night (July 21) as the city’s Board of Directors withdrew a resolution to confirm appointment of Jeff Dingman as the Acting City Administrator and to name a new Acting Deputy City Administrator to fill Dingman’s post in the interim.

The withdrawal was a formality due to Dingman being on a two-week vacation. The Board voted unanimously (7-0) to appoint Dingman to the position on July 10 and begin a search to permanently fill the position. Dingman has said he will apply for the city’s top job.

The open position stems from the unexpected resignation of former City Administrator Ray Gosack on the day of Dingman’s appointment.

Despite withdrawing the resolution from Tuesday night’s agenda, there were still a few tense moments.

For starters, the Board was almost evenly divided on whether to pull outside agency funding. During the past few months, the Board and city staff have been looking at ways to plug an anticipated 2015 budget year shortfall of $899,273 in the city’s police and fire (LOPFI) contribution fund. The estimates show the fund balance at $5.731 million by Dec. 31, but reaching a deficit of $419,042 by 2021.

Ultimately, four directors said the cuts needed to be made while three did not. Directors Keith Lau (Ward 1), Mike Lorenz (Ward 3), Tracy Pennartz (At-Large Position 5), and Vice-Mayor Kevin Settle voted for the reduction, while directors Andre Good (Ward 2), George Catsavis (Ward 4), and Don Hutchings (At-Large Position 7), voted against.

Good said many of the agencies get outside support based on what they receive from the city. Hutchings saw the monies as “an investment in the city of Fort Smith.” Lorenz did not disagree, but noted that it was a “small amount of funding that has been reduced over the years, chosen annually by a group of individuals,” adding that there is “no guarantee” an agency that applies will receive funding anyway.

“The requests are always two to three times the monies available and there has continually been a problem of, ‘Is it allocated correctly?’ and some (agencies) are receiving funding that some people feel they shouldn’t be,” Lorenz said, adding that he “couldn’t be comfortable giving taxpayer money to charity and making that decision.”

The $145,000 cut is spread among 26 organizations, or less than $5,600 per organization annually.

In other business, Director Lau questioned a consent agenda item asking for $249,000 to the Utility Department for engineering services on the Lake Fort Smith and Lee Creek Fluoride Feed Systems. Steve Parke, director of utilities for the city of Fort Smith, said the funding was a nine-month contract for engineering services, which would include “submittal review and contract compliance” as well as “providing a full-time resident inspector on both locations during construction. Parke said the amount was “within the standard percentage rates of all the contracts we’ve done.”

This didn’t fly with Lau.

“I can assure you with our consent decree that’s coming up that we’re going to have to start looking at things like this — exorbitant costs — which $249,000, especially with two full-time inspection engineers on site is exorbitant, and I think this Board would support me in saying that,” Lau said, adding that city staff needs “to come up with some kind of way in the future to control these costs.”

Lau continued: “I want to see an effort to really look at this. Instead of it coming across on a consent agenda for $249,000, that there’s some thought given to how we can save money on these kinds of projects. I think we owe it to the citizens, to the employees of Fort Smith, to all the payers of these high rates that we’re going to be charging. I’m just putting everybody on notice, I’m not putting up with these kinds of exorbitant costs in the future.”

Parke noted that the city typically “under-runs our services,” and said that from a budgeting request standpoint, “they are designed for the full contract period,” pointing out that if all budgeted hours were not used, the contract could come in under the $249,000 funding. 

Ultimately, it did not convince board members, who voted down the item 4-3 while approving the rest of the consent agenda. Lau voted against and was joined by Catsavis, Pennartz, and Settle, while Hutchings, Lorenz, and Good voted for.

Pulled for a separate vote from the consent agenda was an item to accept the bid for sale of a surplus parcel of land at 900 N. 14th St. The city had one bidder, Fort Smith Public Schools, which submitted a bid of $100 on an assessed $6,000+ parcel. Fort Smith resident Deborah Newborn was interested in the property and tried on multiple occasions, she said, to reach out to Alie Bahsoon, the city’s purchasing manager, so she could be notified of when the bidding process would open. Bahsoon admitted that the failure to notify Newborn was an “oversight,” so the Board decided to pull the item for a separate vote.

Catsavis, Pennartz, Lau, Good, Settle, and Lorenz, each voted to reject the sale while Hutchings voted to approve. The vote will essentially reset the bidding process to square one.