After three years of budgetary belt-tightening, the Fort Smith Board of Directors are now considering the development and implementation of a multi-year financial plan.
The Board met with representatives from the National Resource Network at a Tuesday (Jan. 30) study session after city finance applied for participation in the group’s Technical Assistance Program. According to a memo from Fort Smith Finance Director Jennifer Walker to city administration, five cities nationwide will be selected for participation in the program, with Fort Smith one of those under consideration.
The program, funded largely by a grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, would cover 75% of the program’s cost with the city picking up the other 25%. While an actual dollar figure will not be available until NRN comes back with their assessment and their final decision (should they choose to accept Fort Smith’s application), City Administrator Carl Geffken told Talk Business & Politics the amount would be “in the $25,000 to $100,000 range.”
“I don’t know when we will hear. We’re still in the middle of the assessment meetings,” Geffken said, adding that “no company” would run without a five-year budget, “and most cities do the same thing. I know when I was with the city of New York, we lived and died by our five-year budget, and it was a way of being able to forecast out in the future any problems or issues, if known, so they could be addressed sooner rather than being addressed immediately with harsh action.”
Geffken pointed to issues like the under-funding of older plans under the local police and fire (LOPFI) pension program as an example.
“A small course correction is better than saying, ‘Okay, directors, we need to do something with more brutality.'”
The NRN provides assistance to cities and government entities through peer networks, technical assistance programs, and online access to tools and resources. Through its technical assistance program, it targets cities with over 40,000 residents that meet at least one of the following criteria:
• A 2013 annual average unemployment rate of 9% or more, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS);
• A population decline of 5% or more between 2000 and 2010, as measured by the U.S. Decennial Census;
• A poverty rate of 20% or more (excluding students enrolled in undergraduate, graduate or professional school), as measured by the 2010-2012 American Community Survey — this is where Fort Smith would be eligible with a rate of just over 26%;
• A bond rating downgrade or change in outlook;
• A failure to balance the local government budget for two or more years in a row since 2008; and
• A reduction of 10% or more of local government workforce in the last three years.
Despite the city’s application and Geffken’s endorsement of the program, not all Board members were sold on laying out for the 25% match on Tuesday.
Director Kevin Settle wanted to know the rate of return, asking NRN representatives, “Do you see government grow or government retract (as a result of the program)? What do you see from cities that do this because if you’re adding people and adding costs, then my question is why? That is truly what the citizens want to know. Everything else is fluff. At the end of the day, can you show us what the savings are going to be?”
Settle said he was not on board with growing government “just to grow government?”
Director Tracy Pennartz also said she was “not yet convinced” the program would be worth the outlay, though she was willing to wait for the final assessment and figures before deciding.