Ward 4 City Director George Catsavis will face challenger Neal Martin on Nov. 8 following the Aug. 9 primary in which the incumbent scored more votes than his three opponents, but ultimately fell below the 50% threshold. Martin is hoping an endorsement from the third candidate, Robyn Dawson, will help his cause.
On Friday (Oct. 21) Martin revealed what he hopes will be the secret push he needs to unseat the incumbent — an endorsement from August primary opponent Robyn Dawson.
Catsavis received 750 votes (45.7%) with his closest challenger being Martin, who received 672 (40.95%). The 4.75% margin would be a safe cushion in a two-way race, but Dawson scored around 13% of the vote.
“I am pleased to announce that I am be supporting Neal Martin in the upcoming Ward 4 City Director race in Fort Smith,” Dawson wrote. “While I am disappointed in the results of the primary election, I feel that Mr. Martin is the best choice to move our great city forward.”
Dawson said she had the chance “to learn more about Mr. Martin during the campaign and found he is committed to improving our city, will provide much-needed vision to our board, and will work to enhance economic development in Fort Smith.”
Catsavis said he was “not surprised at all” by Dawson’s endorsement decision, telling Talk Business & Politics that his endorsements “from the Fraternal Order of Police, the Fort Smith Firefighters, former city director Bill Maddox, and Denny Altes will be just fine.”
“Of course, I knew who was backing Dawson from the get-go — the same people who come after me every election,” Catsavis said. “I guess it’s hard for these people to understand that this city director does what’s best for all the people and will continue to do so. Their way to move Fort Smith forward is higher taxes, more regulations, more control. We’ll let the voters decide Nov. 8.”
Martin has seized on Catsavis’ voting record, particularly as it involves the director’s “yes” vote on the $480 million consent decree between the city and federal government requiring the city to improve sewer systems.
Following are responses from Catsavis and Martin to questions from Talk Business & Politics.
TB&P: If elected on Nov. 8, would you consider appealing the consent decree? How would you respond to Mr. Martin’s criticisms of your previous vote to affirm the consent decree?
Catsavis: The city signed a contract with the DOJ to agree with the terms set forth in the Consent Decree. According to (the city’s) legal, there is no legal position to appeal at this time. I do want to say that we had absolutely no way out of this. The city has been under an administrative order for over 20 years to correct our sewer problem. Even if the Board had voted not to accept the Consent Decree, the DOJ would have sued the city, and we would have had a protracted legal battle that, according to legal, we would not have won. It would have cost the city millions more in legal fees and fines, and the extra cost would have been passed on to the citizens of Fort Smith, meaning even higher sewer rates than we already have. If there was any other option, I would have taken it, but there was none. I believe the majority of the people understand this. Yes, some have criticized me and the Board for voting for this, but my question is, where were they when this was being talked about? Where was their solution to this issue? They had none because nothing else could have been done, and they know it. Do you believe I would have voted for this knowing it will hurt me financially? Also, yes I have cut back on water just like everyone else has to save money and get by.
Martin: My opponent, George Catsavis, voted for the Consent Decree, which has to be the largest cost increase to the citizens of Fort Smith in recent memory. I believe the vote was cast without proper review from the board and is something that will affect our citizens for the next 12 years. I challenge each of our citizens to compare the sewer portion from their most recent water bill to a water bill 2 years ago to see how big of an impact this vote has been to them. My sewer charges almost doubled in that time span. With that said, I will do everything in my power to appeal the consent decree in order to lessen the burden on our citizens. It is the responsibility of the board to go back to the federal government to do whatever we can to stop this government overreach. Fort Smith invested millions of dollars in sewer repairs prior to the consent decree vote and were making a good effort to come into compliance, but the board chose to not use that as leverage to negotiate better terms for an agreement.
TB&P: The budget will be a source of concern for some time to come. What are some specific areas you would look at reducing or cutting out altogether, and what new revenue sources should the city look at creating?
Catsavis: Yes, the budget has been very tight the last couple of years, especially the general fund, which funds the police and fire departments and parks. The city has been looking at every department trying to find savings and be more efficient. In all areas, we have done several efficiency studies that have pinpointed savings in all departments. I know the police department has been hit the hardest by budget cuts. We are down over 16 police officers, which I find tragic considering the state of affairs in this country. We have 29 parks in Fort Smith, which is great. I love the parks, but I feel the city should put a freeze on opening any more at this time and just maintain what we have, if possible. But we will continue to look at savings on all levels. As far as new revenue sources, no I will not support any new taxes or utility rate increases to offset budget shortfalls. There is already talk of possibly raising water rates, which I will not support. I believe we can find other ways of addressing this issue, such as refinancing bonds or restructuring debt. But the best way to increase revenue is to attract new businesses to Fort Smith. Business increases the tax base along with employment.
Martin: The main way we are going to solve our budget issues is to grow our way out of it by encouraging new business and entrepreneurship. We have to bring business to our city in order to raise revenues. Our city has done some good things over the last few years in this area, but we can’t rest on our laurels. We have to continue to work with our Chamber of Commerce to diversify our economic development opportunities. In regards to reducing the budget, we will start by looking at appealing the Consent Decree. Additionally, each department in the city should look to renegotiate existing contracts or change vendors. For example, the Information Technology department changed telecommunication services carriers in order to save money. The ERP implementation by Finance and Information Technology departments will allow Finance to save money and gain efficiencies not available today. One area that can always be reviewed are internal processes and procedures. Engaging Tracey Shockley and the Internal Audit department will allow the city to improve operational effectiveness.
TB&P: On the issue of diversity in police, fire and other areas of city employment, is enough being done by leadership to address the issue? If not, what other measures should city leadership take to find the balance between fair representation and a highly qualified workforce?
Catsavis: The city has just hired our first black police chief and another officer to the police force. I have absolutely no problem with diversity. I believe it’s good for the community to have a diverse workforce in city employment. I would like to see the city promote diversity by being more proactive and reaching out to schools and colleges to recruit people for city employment.
Martin: I believe we are moving in a positive direction, but we aren’t exactly where we need to be. A big step forward was with the hiring of our new police chief, Nathaniel Clark. But we must continue to reach out to minority populations for city employment. We must also continue to reach out to the female population. One thing that we must do is ensure that our employees are valued. Making sure we reinstate the Cost of Living (COLA) raises are something I will work hard to implement. I’ve been in situations where I’ve not received a COLA and its demoralizing. If our staff feels like they are valued, they will work hard and encourage others to apply for jobs.
TB&P: Do you believe some parts of the city are not treated fairly compared to other parts of the city (north side versus Chaffee Crossing, for instance)? How will you address these complaints as city director?
Catsavis: I have always felt that a city should promote development of all areas. Chaffee Crossing has been good for Fort Smith. Several new businesses have opened along with several residential developments. But other areas of Fort Smith have not developed as fast. This is something that the board needs to take a look at and see what can be done to promote development in these areas. Input from the citizens in these areas would be a good start. I’m sure they could share ideas and thoughts as to what they feel it would take to develop these areas, or at least devise a comprehensive plan for future development.
Martin: We don’t have the luxury of focusing on one part of the city vs others. We are just not in position to do that. We must be sure we are marketing and maintaining all parts of our city while working to build up each area. During the forum, Mr. Wade mentioned there was industrial property on the north side of town that isn’t being used or maintained. To me, that is unacceptable. We must work to provide incentives for business to operate in all parts of our city in order to provide jobs, generate tax revenue, and produce goods that can be sold all across the country.
TB&P: What do you feel is the better form of government for Fort Smith — City Administrator or Mayor-Council, and why?
Catsavis: I have been a Board member for six years. We have a City Administrator that answers to the Board. The City Administrator runs the day-to-day operations. I have no problem with this type of system although there has been talk of changing the form of government. Maybe this needs to be looked at from both sides. I just do not have an answer as to which would be better. Of course, all Board members are accountable to the people. It just comes down to what the people want. It’s their city.
Martin: I feel both forms can be effective – if they have strong leadership. We have a City Administrator form of government but it requires the board to focus on the long term vision of the city. The City Directors should develop the vision and hold the City Administrator accountable to execute that vision. The City Administrator also oversees daily operations of the city. With proper leadership and vision casting, our form of government can be extremely effective and move our city farther than we could ever imagine. It takes board members who see the big picture and know how to move our city toward the future. Too often, the Board can get caught up in daily operations of the city and miss the mark on the long term future of our city.