Fort Smith Director Catsavis says city has ‘real potential to move forward’

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 580 views 

George Catsavis knows about facing opposition in an election. In 2010, he took on Patrick Jacobs and won a two-year term by a 57% to 43% margin. He would face another competitor in John Cooley two years later. That contest – for a four-year term – would be much closer with just 69 votes (a 0.75% margin) the deciding factor.

After six years on the Fort Smith Board of Directors, he doesn’t plan to stop in November. But this time he is facing not one, but two challengers in Robyn Dawson and Neal Martin. (Link here for the Talk Business & Politics Q&A with Dawson. The Martin Q&A will run later this week.)

A life-long businessman with six years on the Board, he is hoping to ride that experience to two victories this year – the first in the upcoming Aug. 9 primary and the second on Nov. 8. Catsavis recently spoke to Talk Business & Politics about his background, qualifications, accomplishments and aspirations for the next term. His responses are below.

TB&P: A little background: what about your work history, education, and overall experience makes you uniquely qualified for the position of City Director?

Catsavis: I have been a life-long resident of Fort Smith. I have been in the restaurant business all my life starting with the Broadway restaurant and then George’s restaurant. My family has a long history here dating back to the mid 1940s. I graduated Southside High School, then went on to the University of Arkansas.

Fort Smith City Director George Catsavis
Fort Smith City Director George Catsavis

I feel I am very qualified to be City Director because in my business experience, I have created jobs. Job growth has always been one of my priorities. I understand what businesses need to expand and be successful, and I have a good working relationship with city government.

TB&P: With flat to low growth in sales tax revenue combined with the pressures on police and fire pension funding and other growing costs, how would you address budget concerns over the next term?

Our 2016 tax revenues have been about the same as 2015, but our projected estimates for 2016 are down around 3%. I do not see 2017 being any better at this time. My main concern is stabilizing the general fund, which funds the police and fire departments and parks.

The general fund is around $48 million. Of that, $15.5 million goes to the police department, and $13.4 million to the fire department. (Combined) that is around 62% of the general fund amount. The general fund money comes from sales tax and property taxes. We normally try to keep a 15% reserve. Even though tax receipts are flat, I believe we can maintain our current level of service if we stick to paying the necessary expenses.

TB&P: How do you hope to raise revenue for federally-mandated sewer system upgrades?

First, let me say this issue should have been addressed years ago. The city has been under an administrative order from the EPA for over 20 years to fix our sewer system. In fact, we were the only city in America that had been under this order for this long. As everyone is aware, the only way to pay for this $480 million upgrade was to raise sewer rates. Of that $480 million, $360 million is for capital improvements and $120 million for operational expenses.

I did ask our city attorney about taking this to litigation, and he advised us not to do so. We also asked for a second opinion from an Atlanta law firm that specializes in consent decree litigation. They also agreed with our legal counsel to go ahead and comply with the consent decree. However, if it had gone to litigation we might have lost the expenses, which would have been substantial – over a million and a half for legal fees and the fines and penalties would have been millions more. That would have to be paid out of the utility department, and the only way for utilities to pay it would be to raise our sewer rates even more than they are now. But the board is looking at trying to cut costs and lessen the impact to our citizens, which I feel can be accomplished soon.

TB&P: There has been a longstanding debate over what the city can and can’t do to be seen as “pro-business.” What are some ways that you feel the city can create and/or maintain a more favorable pro-business environment?

As a small business owner, I understand how difficult and frustrating it can be to open a business. I have always said the less the cost to open a business, the better chance they have to make it, and expand. There needs to be a better communication between city and business owners. New businesses create jobs, and I would like to see the permit process streamlined and simpler with more involvement by city leaders and Board members.

I would not mind even creating a small business committee from local business owners to work with city and board members to help address complaints and provide a better understanding of issues business owners face. We want to give a business friendly impression that says, “We want your business and will do whatever it takes.”

TB&P: Over the last four years, what do you think has improved about the city of Fort Smith? Where do you still see challenges?

To me, Chaffee Crossing has been a real positive for Fort Smith. Several large businesses have been built and employ thousands there, and it continues to grow. I feel Fort Smith has real potential to move forward. We have the fourth largest river basin in the country, an Interstate system in the middle of town, an airport in the middle of town, a rail system – everything we need to prosper.

I know a lot of people say northwest Arkansas is booming. They have Walmart, Tyson, JB Hunt. But to me, that’s no excuse. We have everything they have as far as infrastructure and workforce and location. The challenge is getting the word out across the country. I know a lot of our children, after they graduate college, do not come back to Fort Smith to work because there are no jobs that they are qualified for. That has to change. If it takes a “Let’s Make A Deal” mentality to get business here, then let’s do it. It’s time to move forward.