Fort Smith Board approves $10 million housing development to support UAFS, nixes personnel additions

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 1,718 views 

The Fort Smith Board of Directors on Tuesday (March 6) approved three requests that will pave the way for University Park, a $10 million, 24-unit duplex development at 5601 and 5717 Park Avenue to support the student population at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS).

The Board also nixed five proposed personnel additions in the sanitation department and received an update on the search for a new sanitation director.

While the vote on University Park passed with six in favor and Director George Catsavis abstaining due to “personal business interests,” it was not without opposition. The project is a private development, not requiring city funds.

For starters, the proposal before the Board was an appeal from a failed effort to push the project past the planning commission. Secondly, according to Fort Smith Development Services Director Wally Bailey, a previous neighborhood meeting found one individual opposed to the plan, and three spoke in opposition on Tuesday. The individuals against cited fears of automobile accidents, increased traffic, and falling property values among top concerns. One of the opposed said in reference to UAFS students that she “didn’t want them there” because college students “can make bad decisions.”

Up for consideration were three changes targeting the city’s master land use plan, current zoning, and a development plan from Willowbrook managing partner Mark Spradlin. Spradlin, who is developing the land for land owners Spencer Wiley, Natalie Decker-Kifer, and Teena Crotty, said the development is expected to generate $2.6 million in new revenues for the city over the next 10 years. He also provided a revised development plan that addressed many of the residents’ concerns.

For example, a traffic count included in the revised package found the impact would result in approximately 314 daily trips (157 vehicles entering, 157 exiting) for a weekly total of around 2,198, which, noted Fort Smith Engineering Director Stan Snodgrass, is about one-third the weekly total of Free Ferry Road and 1,000 less than Dallas Street’s 3,000. Accident-wise, there were 15 associated with Park Avenue from Jan. 1, 2015 through Feb. 28, 2018. However, 12 of those occurred at the intersection of Park Avenue and North Waldron Road rather than the arterial street where the development will be located.

“Using data not feelings,” Spradlin said, his company had done everything it could to prove how the development was needed and how it would be an asset to the city. Director Mike Lorenz said University Park was “proof Fort Smith is growing.”

“I hear every day people complaining about Fort Smith not growing, and this is a good example of that being wrong. Nobody wants to develop a project and put this kind of money into it if there isn’t a need. UA-Fort Smith is a great asset for us long term, and this is showing private investment supporting that public entity in the college out there, and I am 100% in support of this. It’s obviously needed, and it’s been well-researched,” Lorenz said.

While most of the Board agreed with Lorenz’ take, they could not agree on the need for five new sanitation positions. The proposal from Deputy City Administrator and acting sanitation director Jeff Dingman failed 4-3 with Directors George Catsavis, Don Hutchings, Tracy Pennartz, and Kevin Settle opposing, while Directors Lorenz, Keith Lau, and Andre Good affirmed.

Dingman originally proposed the positions at a Feb. 27 study session, noting it would reduce the overall amount of overtime the city pays out, resulting in a net increase to the 2018 budget of $171,487 ($212,277 for the new positions minus $40,790 in overtime reductions). Approval would have resulted in a net operating deficit to the Sanitation Fund of $323,855.

“However,” Dingman said, “the FY2018 budget has not yet been amended to account for increases from the disposal rate and industrial rate increases that went into effect February 1. That revenue will be evaluated and recommended for amendment later in the year, but the rate adjustment was projected to provide about $1.35 million in additional revenues for eleven months of 2018. The adjusted working capital estimate for the end of the year will be $7,881,594, leaving a contingency reserve percentage for the Sanitation Fund of 48%, which is greater than the 17% required by the city’s financial policy.”

But while the money would be there to fund the positions post-adjustment, Director Pennartz said the city had to be mindful of 2019 as well as future budgets when creating new ongoing positions.

Also Tuesday, Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken said the search for a new sanitation director will go on for the foreseeable future after one of three finalist candidates withdrew his name for consideration and the other two, “although qualified in many ways, were not what we needed.”

“It will be at least six months. It could be upwards to a year before the position is filled,” Geffken said.

The position has been vacant since the May 2017 firing of former director Mark Schlievert. Schlievert was terminated on May 10, making him the second consecutive firing from the embattled department’s top post after Baridi Nkokheli was terminated by then-Acting City Administrator Dingman for insubordination in December of 2015.

Schlievert’s termination surrounded the city’s controversial recycling issue, which, for three years starting in October of 2014, found the department trashing over 91% of its recyclables at Fort Smith Landfill without telling the public. Most of this occurred outside of Schlievert’s watch. Dingman, who was in the Acting City Administrator post following retirement of the late Ray Gosack, hired Schlievert in April 2016 before Geffken’s first day on the job.

It is unclear what the compensation package for Sanitation Director will be once the post is finally filled. While employed with the city of Fort Smith, Schlievert earned an $85,000 annual salary.

As for the recycling issue, the city has hired Third Rock Recycling to process materials. The contract became active on June 26, 2017.