City estimates $153.8 million in spending on Fort Smith consent decree over next five years

by Aric Mitchell (aric.mitchell@gmail.com) 338 views 

The Fort Smith Board of Directors on Tuesday (Nov. 7) approved a five-year capital improvement plan for the city’s wastewater program that will budget $153.8 million in consent decree spending from 2018 through 2022, an average of $30.76 million per year.

When added to the over $70 million the city has already spent at the 25% mark of its 12-year deadline, Fort Smith rate payers will have spent just over $223.8 million seven years into the agreement that mandates improvements to the city’s 500 miles of sewer lines and 23 pump stations. This does not count necessary non-consent decree improvements and maintenance, estimated at an additional $48 million over the coming five-year period.

Fort Smith Utilities Director Jerry Walters said “a lot of the early effort was to establish the program” and perform assessments with some construction underway, but “after the first of the year,” the department plans on doing a “top to bottom review.”

Walters continued: “We’ll be going over the whole program to evaluate where we are and make sure we’ve targeted the right things that need to be done because a lot of the consent decree says, ‘Engineering judgment should be used in establishing the programs and projects we’re doing.’ Well, in some cases I haven’t been able to find that engineering judgment. So I think that by doing a bottom to top review of it, we’ll have a much better feel for what we’re going to need to complete the consent decree.”

The desire, he added, is for Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken and the city’s attorneys to have the consent decree modified.

“We’re not going to get rid of it, but we want to get it extended,” he said. Even so, it’s “plan for the worst and hope for the best” from a budgeting perspective.

“Right now, I don’t have tremendous confidence in the programs. Folks are making a great effort in putting it together, but I think we need to take another hard look at it,” Walters said.

Since the consent decree has taken effect, sewer rates in the city of Fort Smith have gone up 167%, and as Geffken said in a recent interview with Talk Business & Politics, “If the consent decree stays as it is, we’ll need to increase rates (again).”

When the consent decree was first handed down, the estimated price tag was $480 million. Geffken acknowledged on Tuesday that it’s too early to tell whether the estimate will end up being accurate, but “It’s still too much for the citizens of Fort Smith to spend, which is why we’ve all said, ‘We’re not bringing a sewer rate increase to the Board (until renegotiation).'”

Also Tuesday, the Board approved CIPs for the city’s streets and parks programs. The streets CIP, funded through a 1% city sales tax, totals $29.9 million for 2018 and $133 million for the five-year period from 2018 through 2022. Parks, funded through a 1/8% city sales tax, totals $2.959 million in 2018 and $12.955 million for the five-year period.

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