Neal Martin is a Fort Smith native who in 2010 moved his family back to his home city. Six years have passed since that time, and he is hoping to step into the role of city director this November.
He will first have to face two competitors in the Aug. 9 primary – incumbent Ward 4 Director George Catsavis and challenger Robyn Dawson. Early voting began Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 8. (Link here for the Q&A with Dawson and link here for the Q&A with Catsavis.)
Martin recently spoke to Talk Business & Politics about his plans for a first term, including hopes for starting a business incubator for young entrepreneurs and a desire to help raise awareness for the perpetually struggling foster care system. As of March 31, 2016, the state’s department of human services reported 4,791 children in the system with Sebastian County tied with Pulaski at around 600 affected children in spite of having just one-third the population (127,000 vs. 391,000).
Martin also hopes he can join the Board in guiding City Administrator Carl Geffken in working on efficiencies to reduce the costs of the $480 million consent decree looming over the city from the EPA for years-long violations of the federal Clean Water Act.
TB&P: A little background: what about your work history, education, and overall experience makes you uniquely qualified for the position of City Director?
Martin: I was born and raised in Fort Smith, and went to Woods, Chaffin, and Southside. I spent one year at Westark before completing my degree at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. After graduating from college, I started my career in Kansas City, Missouri, working for the leading provider of advisory, technology, and operations outsourcing to the financial and healthcare industries, DST Systems. I met my wife, Christina, and had three of our four children while living and working in Kansas City. Our four children are Elijah, 12, Lily, 10, Maylie, 8, and Glory, 2.
In 2010, I received the opportunity to move back to Fort Smith to work with AFMC, where I am the manager of Application Development. Some of my qualifications are: twice elected official for Johnson County, Kansas, Vice Chairman of Deacons at East Side Baptist Church, started the Upward Basketball program for over 500+ children and 200+ volunteers, and have 17+ years of private sector employment.
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?
To begin, we must look internally at our process and procedures to ensure government is operating as efficiently as possible. We’ve recently seen departments in the city looking to renegotiate contracts or change vendors to save money. For example, the Information Technology department recently moved telecommunication services carriers in order to save money. The ERP implementation by Finance and Information Technology departments will allow Finance to gain efficiencies not available today.
We must work with Carl Geffken, our new City Administrator, to evaluate all departments to ensure they are operating as efficiently as possible. I’ve made my career in the technology sector and, a lot of times, it can be used to streamline processes and gain efficiencies so staff can focus time and energy elsewhere. Sometimes, just making changes to a bad process can save significant money and resources. After undergoing this task, we need to evaluate where we’re at and, if possible, look at other alternatives to address budget concerns.
TB&P: How do you hope to raise revenue for federally-mandated sewer system upgrades?
To start, we have to be wise as to how we implement these upgrades. I’ve seen cost estimates from $250 million to $480 million as the cost to finish these upgrades. We must pay attention to every detail to ensure we are spending money wisely and engineering contractors are appropriately billing the city. I like what I’ve seen from our interim Utilities Director Bob Roddy. With his experience and knowledge of contracts in the Burns and McDonnell pricing database, we can ensure that jobs are being bid correctly and Fort Smith is not being gouged on pricing.
Secondly, we must ensure our yet-to-be-hired utilities director has the necessary skill-set to ensure we are spending money as wisely as possible. We must ensure he has the background to handle a job of this size and the knowledge to implement it wisely. The new utilities director must also ensure the institutional knowledge obtained over the years is kept intact by retaining staff or documenting knowledge upon retirement of key staff. We must also look at creative ways to pay for these upgrades by exploring energy savings performance contracts and similar measures.
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 I travel around the city speaking with various people and groups, one thing I continue to hear from business owners is it is difficult to do business in Fort Smith. We need to ensure we promote our businesses as much as possible. Business needs to know that the board is on their side and will do what we can to make them successful.
The city must find ways to magnify or enhance private sector investment in order to foster this ‘pro-business’ climate. Specifically, I believe the recent proposal by Director Kevin Settle to review existing development ordinances will be a great step to determining if Fort Smith is truly pro-business. Reviewing ordinances that help/hinder development will ensure that Fort Smith is playing by the same rules as other municipalities around us.
The city must also foster an entrepreneurial spirit. We need to let residents know that if you want a start a business in this city, we will do everything we can to help you achieve success. We need to encourage technology skills development among our schools and UAFS so our young technology entrepreneurs are ready to hit the ground running upon graduation. We should look to create a localized business incubator to help young entrepreneurs with management training or office space.
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?
I believe there have been positive developments at Chaffee Crossing and downtown. Seeing the amount of dirt being moved at Chaffee Crossing is truly encouraging. Parrot Island Waterpark has been an example of the city and county working together to bring fun and excitement to citizens of Fort Smith. We are seeing positivity moving through our city, but challenges still lie ahead. We must ensure the city Board creates a vision for the city and allows the City Administrator and department heads to execute on that vision.
The Board must ensure they don’t get so involved with day-to-day activity that it distracts from the overall vision, because the City Administrator and staff are handling the day-to-day operations. There are also challenges in our city with the foster care crisis in Sebastian County. We have so many children from our area that are being shipped all over the state because there aren’t enough foster homes in our area. I want to use my platform to bring awareness to this issue. My family is taking the steps to become a foster family and maybe this will encourage others to do the same.