Editor’s note: This story is updated to reflect clarification on the city of Fort Smith’s initial press release explaining the sewer rate change. After receiving conflicting input from several sources, Talk Business & Politics sought and received an explainer statement from Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken, which is now included in this story.
Fort Smith sewer rates will soon change for residential and industrial users whose sewer collection goes through former Fort Chaffee infrastructure to lagoons maintained by the city of Barling. The rates are not rising for those on the Barling system.
Users will see the adjustment to their sewer bills in the current billing cycle, wrote Fort Smith Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman in a July 7 press release.
“Certain utilities customers in the City of Fort Smith will see an adjustment in their sewer bill in the current billing cycle” due to a 15-year-old settlement agreement among Fort Smith, Barling, and the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority (FCRA),” Dingman said.
The usage rate for the affected customers will go from $8.45 per ccf to $11.77 for the first 4 ccf plus an additional $1.83 for each additional ccf above 4. The monthly base rate for these customers will remain $4.50 per month since base rate is the same for both cities. As an example, the average Fort Smith residential customer uses 5 ccf per month. This volume costs $46.75 using Fort Smith’s sewer rate. Applying Barling’s sewer rate to the same 5 ccf results in a charge of $18.10.
According to an August 2002 settlement agreement that addressed municipal boundaries and the provision of municipal services to property administered by the FCRA within the cities of Fort Smith and Barling, the city of Barling may set sewer rates for properties within the corporate limits of Fort Smith, but for whom waste is treated by Barling at the treatment lagoons it acquired from FCRA.
Under the agreement, Fort Smith administers user billing of the specified utility accounts at the rate set by Barling, and then remits 75% of the amount collected back to the city.
“At such time in the future when the sewer lagoons are abandoned in favor of connecting all sewer collection in the area to Fort Smith’s Massard Wastewater Treatment Plant, the users will be subject to the rates applicable to customers of the City of Fort Smith wastewater utility. A new transmission line must be built and the capacity of the Massard Wastewater Treatment Plant must be expanded before that can happen,” Dingman said, adding that such projects “are being reviewed for inclusion on the City of Fort Smith’s five-year capital improvement plan for utilities infrastructure.”
The city of Fort Smith has been plagued by sewer rate increases in recent years resulting from a federally stipulated consent decree for the city’s years-long violations of the Clean Water Act. From 2006 to 2017, average total sewer charges per bill have risen from $16.49 to just under $48, an increase of around 190%.
As drastic as that sounds, however, it doesn’t fully illustrate the severity. After reaching a peak of $20.67 in 2011, rates eased downward, hitting a low of $18.10 in 2014 before shooting up to their current state. As a result, in just three years, the average resident has seen an increase of roughly 165% from what they were paying for sewer services.
Following is an explainer statement from Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken: “It may look like the rates are going up but the Barling rate of $11.77 is for the first four ccf whereas the Fort Smith rate is $8.45 for each ccf. If we standardized them so they are comparable, Barling charges $11.77 for the first four ccf and Fort Smith charges $33.80 for the first four ccf. For each additional ccf, Barling charges $1.83 and Fort Smith charges $8.45. So, for an average family that uses five ccf, the bill using the Barling rates will be $18.10 whereas using the Fort Smith rates, the bill is $46.75. Users will be going from $8.45 per ccf to $11.77 for the first four ccf. Another way to look at it would be if Barling charged per ccf. If we do that, Barling charges $2.9425 per ccf for the first four ccf’s and then Barling charges $1.83 for each additional ccf. Fort Smith charges $8.45 per ccf.”