Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken is done with sewer rate increases for the foreseeable future, stating his administration would no longer entertain increases as long as prices were at their current levels compared to the area’s median household income (MHI).
At a Tuesday (March 28) study session of the Fort Smith Board of Directors, Geffken said he will travel to Washington, D.C., “sometime at the end of April” to plead the city’s case for more time on the federal consent decree for years-long violations of the 1973 Clean Water Act. Geffken’s audience for the meeting will be U.S. Sens. John Boozman, and Tom Cotton, both Arkansas Republicans, and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack R-Rogers.
“I will be providing them with information and saying, ‘Look, we need help.’ They have always expressed a willingness to help us. They’re excellent that way,” Geffken told Talk Business & Politics after the meeting, adding the outreach would “help us get our message across to say, ‘We can’t do it. We still want to adhere to it because we believe our water should be clean … but we’re going to need more time.”
Fort Smith residents are paying for much of the estimated $480 million federal consent decree. Sewer rates, which averaged $19.63 a month in April 2015, are set to rise in phases to just under $48 a month by January 2017.
Geffken said he had not intended to make his announcement Tuesday, but City Director George Catsavis pressed for an update because he’d been getting “hammered” with emails and Facebook messages from Fort Smith residents feeling the financial pain of sewer rate hikes. To Catsavis’ point, Geffken said one of the key pieces of evidence for more time he would make in D.C. is that Fort Smith’s sewer rates are at 2.2% of MHI.
“My take is to not move forward with any potential rate increase until it is as low as 1.6%, which is more in the realm of high-normal,” Geffken told Catsavis, noting “normal is 1.2% or 1.4%.”
“But with our current median household income, anything we’re paying now is definitely high enough.”
Geffken believes the city must demand more time on repayment, and claimed he would be ready to dig in his heels for a rate increase prohibition, but acknowledged, “Obviously, with a statement like this — and because we could start falling behind if there is no willingness to start to modify (the consent decree) — I ask that you (the Board) be kind to me when I’m in jail and we’re paying $53.59 a day.”
Geffken argued no one knew what the consent decree terms would really cost when the agreement was entered in to for the 12-year repayment plan. In the past, he told Talk Business & Politics, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has worked more closely with municipalities to give a better idea of what to expect, but “they didn’t do it with us.”
He continued: “We’ve asked the EPA, ‘What other municipalities are at or over 2%, and we’ve never gotten an answer. Probably, there aren’t any, or if there are, they’re like one handful. I don’t know an answer to that question. However, over 2% is incredibly high when the median household income is $33,000. It’s not like we’re Bentonville, where it’s a $60,000 or more median household income, and we’re not one of those states that does either. It affects what we can spend. We’re doing the best we can. But it still comes to the point where we can only do what we can afford to do. … We’re a city in fiscal difficulties, and we can’t afford it.”
An ideal scenario “now that we’re in it,” Geffken said, would be to focus more incrementally on projects and their progress, and then “every three or five years, have a review. ‘Does the consent decree still make sense?’ Don’t use it like a hammer over our heads as negative reinforcement for, in this case, doing the right thing.”
Joining Geffken for the Washington trip will be Interim Utilities Director Bob Roddy of outside consulting firm Burns & McDonnell and Richmond, Va.-based attorney Paul Calamita of AquaLaw, a firm he founded that specializes in consent decree work.
“And that’s because I need experts, who can provide expert information; who have the credibility, track record, and history,” Geffken said, adding of Calamita, “He is wonderfully frugal with spending his client’s money, but he has that focus on how to move forward and help us amend this consent decree.”
Even so, Geffken admits the process moving forward will be a slow one, but said, “We’re not going to forget about it.”
The trip in April will not be Geffken’s first pushback against the consent decree. In February, he filed a formal dispute resolution against the EPA for the agency’s denial of a request to spend $120,900 in stipulated penalty monies in-city on consent decree items rather than sending the money to Washington. The resolution is pending.