Fort Smith Board to consider auditor for utilities department, talks road work

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 258 views 

Steve Parke, director of utilities for the city of Fort Smith, continued to be a target for the Board of Directors while the Fort Smith Housing Authority found itself losing a $1.1 million allocation from the city’s Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) at Tuesday night’s (Oct. 20) meeting.

Unlike weeks’ past, Parke did not have to undergo a grueling interrogation of his project proposals related to the $480 million consent decree for the city’s violations of the Clean Water Act. However, he did seem to be the target of a move from Director Keith Lau during the officials forum near the meeting’s conclusion.

While Lau mentioned hiring an auditor for the utilities department at the Aug. 18 meeting, he actually moved to add it to the Board’s Nov. 3 agenda. The official request: to add a position under the internal auditor specific to the utilities department. All directors approved adding it to the agenda for an official vote.

In comments to The City Wire afterward, Lau said he feels “we (the city) owe it to the citizens of Fort Smith to make sure that we’re spending their money wisely. … If we were to save 10 percent of the total cost of that consent decree, that’s $48 million. If we could save five percent, that’s $24 million. If we save one percent, it’s $4.8 million.”

Lau said he felt some of the engineering fees to come before the Board in Parke’s project proposals were excessive, adding that he didn’t think the department needed “100 percent inspection.”

Lau continued: “I think we could do percentage of completion inspections or critical phase inspections. What we’ve been doing on some of our projects — for example, the 48-inch water line that’s going to go from Lake Fort Smith down to an intersection somewhere in Alma — we have specced out 100 percent inspection, meaning we’re going to put two inspectors on site all the time somebody’s working there, 15 months, to the tune of around $400,000. Why do we do that? We don’t need somebody watching these guys dig holes in the ground.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has given the city until the end of March 2018 to complete the required work and submit for final review. But first, the Board will have to approve Parke’s scope of services, which it has rejected twice thus far. With the work expected to take 24 months, the city is running out of time and could face additional penalties if the project goes past deadline.

The Board also shot down an allocation for the Fort Smith Housing Authority (FSHA) to the tune of $1.1 million. The allocation would have provided assistance to the Authority for street and drainage construction as part of a proposed 55-unit single family and duplex development to be located on the former Red Barn property along Newlon Road.

FSHA Executive Director Mitch Minnick urged the Board not to drop the allocation “because the Housing Authority provides housing for individuals in the city of Fort Smith who are in need of a safe, sanitary, quality place to live, and that is what we strive to provide.”

“The comment was made that we are just like any other private developer in the city, and I respectfully disagree with that because we have a mission mandated by the state Constitution to provide housing for those in need,” Minnick argued, adding that a regular private developer “does not have that mission.”

The Board had shown concern at the Oct. 13 study session that the cash-strapped city would be providing a $1.1 million service to an organization that doesn’t pay real estate taxes. On that point, Minnick acknowledged that while it was “true” the FSHA hadn’t for its Northpointe and Clayton Heights developments, “those developments replaced what the Housing Authority had torn down at Reagan Homes, which was 170 units of family public housing.”

Minnick continued: “With the completion of the Clayton Heights and Northpointe developments, the commitment that the Housing Authority made to the city of Fort Smith to replace those units has been met. We understand that moving forward, any new developments that we do, there is a good possibility that we will need to pay real estate taxes, especially on any market rate units that we do as part of a mixed income development.”

Minnick observed that at the 55-unit Red Barn site under review, “if we had 55 units of housing there and 22 of those units were market rate, then based off an average value of $100,000, the development would pay $23,000 a year in property taxes.” 

Ultimately five of the seven Board members said no. Directors Don Hutchings and Andre Good were the only two to vote against amending the CIP, though they did later vote to pass it as amended. The $1.1 million will instead be reallocated to street overlays and reconstruction, moving total allotment from $37.5 million to $38.6 million over a five-year period.

The overall CIP for streets, bridges, and drainage, will total $34.6 million in 2016 and $149 million between 2016-2020.

Following up on an issue brought to light by Director Tracy Pennartz at the Oct. 13 study session, Sam Cope of Maverick Transportation and Mark Rumsey of Zero Mountain addressed the Board concerning the lack of movement on the widening of Arkansas 45 south of Zero Street, where their respective businesses are located.

The project has been slow-going since 1999. During a three-year period from 1999 to 2002, there were more than 90 accidents, Cope noted, while Rumsey said in 2002, Maverick, Zero Mountain, and OCF, had spent considerable monies enhancing the turn radius to allow trucks to enter Arkansas 45 at a slightly different angle to avoid interference with southbound traffic.

Many of the businesses around the intersection of Arkansas 45 and Planters Road would also like to see a traffic light, Cope and Rumsey agreed, noting that the public safety issue could only get worse as their businesses grow and traffic in the area increases.

Stan Snodgrass, the city’s director of engineering, said the effort will have to involve Sebastian County and the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department (AHTD) and expects the city would have to enter a cost-sharing plan with the two entities to move this up the state’s priority list, adding that he does plan to have those discussions in the next few weeks.

The next meeting of the Fort Smith Board of Directors will be held on Nov. 3 from the Fort Smith Public Schools Service Center.