Fort Smith Directors discuss water billing ‘perfect storm,’ Morton officially appointed to the Board

by Michael Tilley ( 1,127 views 

Sebastian County District Judge Claire Borengasser watches while newly sworn in Fort Smith Director Lavon Morton signs the appointment document.

Talk about creating a Water and Sewer Utilities Advisory Committee morphed into a frank discussion Tuesday night (April 2) among the Fort Smith Board of Directors and Mayor George McGill about a “perfect storm” of factors resulting in water bill errors and complaints.

Some water bills among the city’s 37,153 customers have ballooned beyond normal in recent weeks as the city installs new meters, begins using a new billing software system, and shifts the billing duties from the finance department to the utilities department. Those are just some of the “perfect storm” issues that happened at the same time that are causing water bill errors, noted Director Robyn Dawson.

Of the 1,253 adjusted bills since the billing storm began, 222 were billing errors, 298 were water meter reading errors, and 587 were leaks. Also, the new meters are on average 99% accurate, with the meters being replaced averaging 85% accuracy. Dawson’s response to the numbers cited by Utilities Director Jerry Walters and city Communications Manager Karen Santos was that water bills at most should be around 15% higher on average, adding that leaks, billing errors and other issues are “not going to make your bills double, or triple or quadruple.”

“This is our fault. This is no one’s fault but us. … It’s not leaks,” Dawson said in suggesting what city staff should tell the public and water customers. “It’s the perfect storm we have created and we’re going to fix it, and in the meantime we’re going to take care of you (water customers).”

Director André Good agreed, saying that in instances of sizable billing disputes the city staff should temporarily base the bill on the past 3 or 4 months until the “unexplainable issues” with billing are resolved. He said most citizens understand the bill may go from “$50 to $60 or $70,” but not up to $200.

“None of us use that kind of water,” Good said, which drew audience applause.

Dawson was careful to not place blame on city staff, noting that they are working hard to respond to issues initially outside their control. Newly appointed Director Lavon Morton encouraged the city to catch and review “really large water bills” before they go out to the customer.

City Administrator Carl Geffken, who resisted at one point in the discussion to use the term “billing errors,” said the city has owned the issue and there is a team from various departments working daily on solutions.

“Yes, this is a glitch for which we have apologized,” Geffken said.

Mayor McGill said he, like other citizens, was frustrated by the issue and the city’s initial response, but in recent weeks has seen a “new commitment” from city staff and department heads to correct the billing problems.

As to the advisory committee, McGill said he called for its creation to help the city be more “responsible for major items that costs the city millions and hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.” He said the committee would ensure monthly reporting to citizens on a board about “issues that are important.” McGill also called for the appointment of people with “high skills” with respect to contracts, accounting and auditing.

The board voted 7-0 to create the committee. McGill will make appointments to the seven-member committee with the board required to approve the appointments.

The board also on Tuesday held an executive session to conduct an evaluation of Geffken and the city’s internal auditor Tracy Shockley. Fort Smith Board member Neal Martin said he sought a performance evaluation for Geffken and Shockley simply because it’s a good idea to conduct a quarterly evaluation on key employees. He said there is no specific reason for requesting either evaluation.

The board also on Tuesday voted to appoint Morton to fill the Ward 3 director seat recently vacated by Mike Lorenz. Lorenz stepped down effective March 12 when he and his family moved to Oklahoma City because a job promotion that required relocation.

City ordinances allow the vacancy to be filled by Board appointment or special election open only to Ward 3 residents. An election would cost the city about $15,000 and cannot be held until July. If this is the course of action used, a director would not be sworn in for Ward 3 until August.

Morton retired as senior vice president – risk and chief audit executive at ArcBest in December 2016, following a 20-year career with the company. He served on the city’s Audit Advisory Committee for about 15 years. Six Ward 3 residents requested to be considered for appointment to the position — Jack Swink, Jeff Burks, Robert Brown, Morton, Matthew Holloway and Taneka Tate. Five of the applicants were interviewed March 26 in a public hearing. Holloway did not attend the public hearing and was not interviewed.

The board voted March 26 to place Morton’s appointment on the April 2 agenda. With Director and Vice Mayor Kevin Settle moving to appoint Morton, and Director Keith Lau seconding, the board voted 6-0 to appoint Morton. Sebastian County District Judge Claire Borengasser was on hand Tuesday to swear in Morton to the Ward 3 post.