Fort Smith’s utilities director pick turns down offer, search moves back to square one

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 163 views 

The city of Fort Smith is back to square one on its search for a utilities director.

On Tuesday, Sept. 22, top pick Francisco Martinez turned down the administration’s $102,000 offer to take the lead on the embattled department, which has been burdened with the demands of a $480 million consent decree for years-long violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

Martinez, who works for Puerto Rico’s Aqueduct and Sewer Authority where he has served as vice president of operations since 2013, beat out two other candidates for the position. He was a machinist mate for the U.S. Navy from 1987 to 1993, where he was involved in power plant operations. He has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Puerto Rico and a master’s degree in management from Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico.

When asked why the city chose not to go with a number two pick from the list of three, Geffken said, “Basically we’re looking for the best person possible for that job who’s got all the experience and education needed.”

The city will repost the position through Strategic Government Resources (SGR), the Dallas-based firm it used to recruit for the soon-to-be-filled police chief and recently-filled human resources director positions.

The city’s utilities director search took about two months following the resignation of former director Steve Parke on April 1. Geffken expects the new search to take as long, placing a potential hire date in late November or early December.

SGR had more challenges recruiting for the utilities director position receiving only 10 applicants compared to the combined total of 72 for the police and HR posts.

The challenges likely have something to do with terms of the consent decree, which have driven a major sewer rate increase for Fort Smith residents and placed the department on a strict 12-year deadline for completion.

Until the city can find the right person for the job, it will continue to call on Interim Utilities Director Bob Roddy of Burns & McDonnell, who has experience dealing with consent decrees.

At a recent study session, Roddy provided details on the city’s utility assets, which he listed as worth between $1.5 and $2 billion. Rate increases will soon move the operating budget to $25 million in 2016 and $30 million in 2017. Approximately 49% of those figures will be shouldered by residential customers while 38% will come from commercial billing, 12% industrial billing, 1% “other billing,” and less than 1% from wholesale billing, Roddy said.

Operating expenses over the same period will be $26 million in 2016 and $31 million in 2017 as more requirements of the consent decree are implemented with debt service and capital expenses increasing over time.

The consent decree has “complexity,” Roddy said, noting there are 400 specific items required of the city with 1,300 total entries when factoring in subsets.

“It’s complex and difficult, and you can slip up pretty easily if you’re not paying attention,” he said.

Also, as part of the capital requirements, Roddy said he anticipates the city will have to venture into land acquisitions (i.e. eminent domain), which “can get contentious.”