Fort Smith spent an estimated $182,000 running recycling routes while not recycling

by Aric Mitchell ( 4,948 views 

The Fort Smith Sanitation Department ran approximately $182,000 worth of unnecessary recycling routes from late June 2016 to around May 1, 2017, while the recyclables collected were disposed of at the Fort Smith Landfill, according to new figures received from city administration.

That is just the cost of running the routes, and not the extra cost involved with the landfill operation to handle around 3,000 tons of recyclables. The city continues to run the recycling trucks.

Also in 2016, the city accepted a grant purchase from the Sebastian County Regional Solid Waste Management District (SCRSWMD) in the amount of $56,285.28 for the purchase of additional residential recycling carts.

On May 3, Talk Business & Politics reported that, contrary to a prior statement from city leaders, the sanitation department stopped processing recyclables on June 27, 2016, not the November 2016 date initially given. From the June date until the city announced its decision to the public in a May 1, 2017, press release, recyclables were taken to the landfill and disposed of with refuse collections. The city continued to run its seven recycling routes at a cost of “approximately $2,600” per route ($18,200 total monthly) for a period of about 10 months.

The May 1 press release revealed the city had disposed of recyclables at the Fort Smith Landfill with ordinary trash collection from November 2016-Present after Green Source Recycling Center in Clarksville, Ark., dropped service of Fort Smith recyclables in favor of “higher quality” materials from Russellville.

Green Source Director Justin Sparrow said in the May 3 Talk Business & Politics piece he’d taken over in July and from July to November, Green Source had received no shipments from the city’s sanitation department. Only last October did Green Source and Fort Smith formally come to terms with the cessation of their partnership. Further research by Sparrow revealed the June 27, 2016, date, which the city acknowledged late Thursday night (May 4), confirming recyclables had been landfilled for the longer time period.

SCRSWMD Director Randy Hall told Talk Business & Politics on Friday (May 5) it was “possible” the city might have to replace the $56,000 in funds for its recycling carts since the program has been on hiatus for at least 10 months, but acknowledged “it could go either way.”

“Here’s how it works,” Hall said. “We do our budget in December of the prior year. They (the city) made a presentation to us that they wanted to buy recycle cans, and the grant represents a little over 1,000 cans.” From there, the district considered the request, approved it, and made the purchase on behalf of the city. “When the city wanted cans, they ordered and sent us the invoice. We paid the vendor directly.”

Hall said the process is handled in that manner — with decisions being made by a nine-member board and County Judge David Hudson — because it “keeps our bookkeeping clean.”

How would a possible refund to the SCRSWMD from the city of Fort Smith come into play?

“The money is supposed to be used for recycling efforts whether it be recycled cans, public education, or whatever,” Hall said. “If our board feels strongly enough about it, they could request from the city of Fort Smith that they pay the money back. The city would keep the cans.”

That said, Hall noted none of the SCRSWMD board members had expressed to him an interest in pursuing the matter from either direction. To Fort Smith’s issue of finding a suitable replacement center, Hall said, “I firmly believe they will find a solution. In my mind, I don’t think that’s an issue. Now while running the second truck really doesn’t make any sense to me, I do get a sense of where they might have been coming from.”

Hall recalled that when the city’s recycling program started “back in the 1990s, it met with a lot of resistance.”

“It was difficult to get the citizens in the frame of mind to recycle stuff. I honestly believe that if the city had come up and said, ‘We can’t do this, we’re gonna stop,’ there would have been people mad about that, too. It would have been even harder to restart the program.”

The 1990s crew “did a lot of public outreach, put door hangers on citizens’ doors, and spent a lot of money to get the program started,” Hall explained.

Even today, participation in the recycling program remains extremely low among Fort Smith residents. To illustrate, city officials reported only 1,478 tons taken to the landfill from November-Present, or 1.25% of the 118,320 tons of materials collected from residential customers.

Hall continued: “I’m not defending the city, but I can see where their mindset was. I think the city was in earnest when they requested money for the cans, and I believe the situation came up unexpectedly.”

Hall’s assessment mirrors City Administrator Carl Geffken’s and Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders’ claims nothing was done in a duplicitous manner.

At Tuesday’s (May 2) board meeting, Geffken, responding to allegations of deception during the town hall meeting, said, “We were not trying to say we’re going to pull one over, so to say you’re doing something mean-spirited or duplicitous means this person is a bad person, and that is not in any way what happened here. You can say it was a mistake, but you cannot say it was duplicitous.”

“It was just a failure to communicate,” Mayor Sanders agreed. “There was no intent to mislead. Trash was still picked up. Recyclable wasn’t separated because there was no place for it to go. It was not done to hide anything from the citizens, but it gave us time to go ahead and try to find a solution to the problem. We just didn’t let the people know this was happening at the time.”

Talk Business & Politics has contacted Fort Smith Finance Director Jennifer Walker and Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman with inquiries into the recycling program. Both have confirmed the city received no federal funding for the program during the 2015, 2016, and 2017 year-to-date time periods.