Van Buren, RITA look at market analysis for inland port, punt on AOG rate increase

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 276 views 

The Van Buren City Council voted unanimously on Monday (Sept. 19) to throw its support behind a market assessment for a proposed inland port and intermodal project located near the city.

The city will work with the Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority (RITA) to advertise for a consultant up to the task — stage one in what the two entities hope will result in more than just an analysis.

According to Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman, the assessment is possible because, “We received notice back in April that there was approximately $42,000 in federal money that was earmarked 20 years ago for a port study, and most of this was used” in the 2005 study. “Out of that original $307,000, there is still this $42,000 that’s left. We’re working through Slackwater Harbor, and have been given notice that at this point, it’s either ‘use it or lose it’ funding. It seemed like a great opportunity for us to use it for this market analysis.” (Link here for a PDF of the 2005 study.)

Rep. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, was in attendance Monday night and said RITA had “been working on this for about six years with the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers, and they are ready for us to proceed.”

“It would be a private venue with a private builder,” he continued. “We are also continuing to proceed with a public partnership with (the Corps), so that study is still going on. They’ve agreed if we can get a private builder to build this, they will issue the permits.”

In addition to the market assessment, the goal is to seek an RFEI, or Request for Expression of Interest, “to see if an investor would like to do it for us.”

Also Monday, Council members voted unanimously to approve the refunding of $6.88 million in bonds for capital improvements to its waterworks and sewer system. The city has Series 2007 and Series 2004 Bonds outstanding and anticipates a savings through better interest rates of approximately $50,000 annually over an 11-year period.

Part of that savings will be put to use immediately in the installation of three new baffle curtains, which are custom, prefabricated floating hydraulic barriers that allow existing aerators to be used more efficiently, improve retention/settling time, and eliminate “short circuiting” in a wastewater treatment pond. Total cost of the three baffle curtains – also approved Monday night – is $115,000. The typical life span is between 15 and 20 years.

Absent from Monday night’s agenda was the possible franchise fee increase the city is considering for Arkansas Oklahoma Gas Corp. (AOG). Van Buren enacted a flat franchise fee on AOG in the 1970s of $49,500 per year, which is a low number compared to the 4.25%-of-revenue increase Freeman would like the Council to consider. AOG has responded to confirm that any increase in franchise fees would be passed along to Van Buren customers.

An AOG representative has told Talk Business & Politics the impact would mean an increase of $1.07 per month to Van Buren residential customers and an increase of $5.77 per month to Van Buren small commercial customers. On Monday night, Freeman said the AOG issue “may come up at next month’s meeting.”