Robyn Dawson is one of two challengers vying for incumbent George Catsavis’ Ward 4 Fort Smith Director position. Dawson has lived in Fort Smith for 37 years and considers it her home.
“It’s where I went to school, where I raised my family, where I work and go to church. It is where my heart is,” she said in recent comments to Talk Business & Politics. “My parents were public servants and instilled in me at a very young age that I needed to find ways to serve others. All of my siblings have entered the public service realm as educators. At 10 years old, I was in the first group of students to help with desegregation in North Little Rock Public Schools. It was then that I became immersed with diversity and realized all people had talents and skills that could be used for the greater good.”
Dawson will have to overcome a second challenger in Neal Martin as well as incumbent Catsavis, who was reelected by a narrow margin in 2012, defeating challenger John Cooley by less than one percentage point (50.38%-49.62%, 69 votes).
Early voting for the Aug. 9 primary will be Aug. 2 with the General Election slated for Nov. 8. Also on the November ballot will be Wards 1-3. Ward 1 Director Keith Lau and Ward 3 Director Mike Lorenz are running unopposed while in Ward 2 Director Andre Ward will face challenger Bruce Wade.
Following are responses from Dawson to questions about her background, goals, governing outlook and what she hopes to see for Fort Smith’s growth in the next four-year term.
TB&P: A little background: what about your work history, education, and overall experience makes you uniquely qualified for the position of City Director?
Dawson: I had excellent opportunities to continue my education and I received a Bachelors Degree from Arkansas Tech University, Russellville and a Masters Degree from University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. I am working on a Doctorate Degree from UA, Fayetteville.
I have been in education and public service for 24 years as both a teacher and principal. I am currently the principal at Spradling Elementary School in Fort Smith. In my role as a public school principal, I spend most of my day solving problems, meeting the needs of the public and creatively working within my allotted resources to meet these needs. I understand the complexity of working with revenue within the constraints of policy and/or the law.
Additionally, my husband and I own three small businesses in town. (Town and Country Contractors, River Valley Concrete Coatings, River Valley Pools.) My role in these businesses has been to be the bookkeeper and support my husband in decision making related to the budget. Through this process, I have learned the importance of working and staying within a budget. Fiscal decisions cannot be based on emotion or impulse. As City Director, I will bring a new prospective for creative ways to secure and sustain revenue for the city.
These two roles as public servant and private business owner make me uniquely qualified for the position of city director. I understand how to work with all types of people and communicate clearly so that together, we can solve issues.
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?
As I stated earlier, fiscal issues cannot be addressed by either emotion or impulse. It is imperative to look at data and trajectories to make solid budget-based decisions. My experience in dealing with large budgets that have many regulations and/or laws attached is to be conservative. TB&P: How do you hope to raise revenue for the federally mandated sewer system upgrades?
It is my understanding that the board has addressed the federally mandated sewer system upgrades by raising the sewer rates in a three-step process. We are in step 2 of the step 3 rate raise. While much of the community is feels like the rates are oppressive, they do understand the system upgrades are non-negotiable. In order for our community to move forward and have a sustaining sewer system in order to promote economic growth through business and for our future generations, we must make the improvements and then continue to maintain a healthy water/sewer system. I would like to look at all reasonable options that could be used to raise revenue for this issue.
I would like to look at other comparable cities and see how they have handled these types of fiscal issues. Sometimes, the wheel does not need to be reinvented. Also, we might consider revenue that can be gained from grants or other state and/or federal funding for support to lessen the burden on individual tax payers as this is a regressive form of gaining funds for the middle to low income resident.
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 City Director, I would like to have a “How can we make this work?” attitude from the board, city administration and staff while dealing with the public both in business issues and the private citizens. We have a new administrator in Fort Smith and it has been my experience so far, that he does have a desire to see the city staff be “user friendly.” Having this positive attitude starting with the top administrator will cause a systematic change throughout the city offices. I have noticed this is a priority change that is moving in a positive direction.
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?
In the last four years Fort Smith has not seen a lot of substantial growth. As I have been listening to the community, they feel like Fort Smith has been in a slump. With the loss of large industries such as Whirlpool and the Mitsubishi plant, our revenue has dropped considerably. Home property taxes have stagnated and utility rates increased. Many Fort Smith citizens have moved to NWA or the Tulsa areas where they perceive the growth is occurring. Fort Smith has had trouble recruiting and maintains specialty physicians causing many of our residents to drive to Northwest Arkansas or Little Rock for medical services.
Despite the lack of growth, we have had some progressive amenities come to our area. We have seen the development of the area trails, the osteopathic medical college, the splash pad, Parrot Island Water Park, the development of the New Chaffee, the new area sports complex and the revitalization of downtown, just to name a few. There are also initiatives underway to see the riverfront developed and utilized for growth. This is only the tip of the iceberg. As the 2nd largest city in the state, we must look for ways to stimulate economic growth and development. This is a start, but we must build on this to bring in more industry and revenue to our area. I want to be a part of this progress.
Link here for Dawson’s Facebook campaign page. Similar Q&A’s with candidates George Catsavis and Neal Martin also will be posted this week.