In the midst of needing to hire a new city administrator and city fire chief, Fort Smith’s human resources director announced Monday (Sept. 21) that he is resigning effective Oct. 2.
Richard Jones, who has been with the city’s human resources director for 14 years, is the city’s third high-profile resignation since early July and is the fourth top city official to step down in 2015.
City Administrator Ray Gosack resigned suddenly on July 10, with no reason given for the departure. Fort Smith Fire Chief Mike Richards announced Sept. 2 he would step down on Oct. 30 after almost 33 years with the department. Richards, who turns 60 in December, said the decision to retire was based solely on “providing 100%” of his time to family support rather than firefighting support.
City Finance Director Kara Bushkuhl, who has been with the city for 35 years, is set to retire Oct. 6. Bushkuhl announced her plans to retire before the budget and other conflicts became public. The city has already planned for that transition, with Deputy Finance Director Jennifer Walker to move up when Bushkuhl retires.
Interim City Administrator Jeff Dingman said Monday that Jones’ departure does not come at a good time. In addition to trying to replace Gosack and Richards, Dingman said the HR director also deals with a lot of natural turnover among the around 900 people employed by the city.
“It’s less than ideal, I’ll tell you that. … It will be an interesting transition,” Dingman said.
Jones is leaving for another job. Dingman said he did not know details about Jones’ new job. An attempt by The City Wire to contact Jones was unsuccessful.
“He’s a pretty solid guy, so he’ll be tough to replace,” Dingman said of Jones.
Jones said he will work with “senior staff” during his remaining time in Fort Smith so they can prep for his departure.
“During my final two weeks with the city I will do everything I can to be sure all pending issues are outlined so senior staff are briefed on all programs and projects that are in process. Additionally, I will work with the human resources staff to make sure the day to day functions continue so the city departments and the employees are supported without interruption,” Jones noted in a letter to Dingman.
BOARD, STAFF CONFLICT
A possible reason Gosack left was that a majority of the Fort Smith Board of Directors and Gosack did not agree on the city’s direction in terms of budgets and spending priorities. Like Gosack, Jones also has found himself defending existing city benefits and policies against several Board members who have questioned the benefits and polices.
Several Board members and Jones engaged in a spirited conversation during an Aug. 25 study session focused on the city’s health insurance plan. Jones said the city should stay with its self-insured health care plan and not look at plans used by other cities. In an Aug. 11 memo, Jones argued against moving the city’s health care benefit plan for employees to a benefit plan offered by the Arkansas Municipal League.
However, a majority of the Board ordered Jones to reach out to the League and learn more about the AML plan and how it might be flexible to meet Fort Smith’s needs.
OTHER BUDGET ISSUES
The Board and city staff continue to work toward addressing an anticipated shortfall 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.
The Board has voted to return benefits under the pension plan back to the levels in place in 2004. That action saves the city an estimated $477,000 in this fiscal year and up to $516,000 by year 2026. But based on estimates, additional spending reductions and revenue increases totaling approximately $2.1 million annually are needed to keep the LOPFI contribution fund solvent beyond 2030. Some the budget cutting ideas include a reduction in 401(a) retirement plan contributions, salary cuts for higher-paid city employees, and across-the-board general fund cuts.
Compounding the tense budget discussions is an estimated $480 million order to fix the city’s sewer system that is mandated in an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The estimated $480 million includes $375 million capital costs and $104 million in additional operations and maintenance expenses. The agreement gives the city 12 years to invest the needed funds and do the work to bring the sewer system into compliance.