It is official: Lance McAvoy is the director of the utility department for the City of Fort Smith. The utilities director position has been vacant since September. Fort Smith Utilities Director Jerry Walters submitted his resignation Aug. 27, with his last day in office Sept. 13. McAvoy has served as interim director since Sept. 16.
“Lance has been with utilities for 23 years. He’s committed to Fort Smith, and he’s one of our best and brightest,” said City Administrator Carl Geffken. “He has strong support from the Board of Directors, and he’s viewed by other department leaders as a valuable and collegial partner. We’re pleased he’s agreed to take on this challenge. He has a lot of work to do, helping us to continue to move forward on the Consent Decree while working to hold down sewer rates and improve billing and customer service.”
McAvoy began his tenure with the city in 1996 as a chemist for the utilities department. He was promoted to deputy director of operations in 2015.
“His performance during the record Arkansas River flooding of May and June 2019 was viewed as critical to protecting the safety and quality of our drinking water; continuity of service; minimizing problems and damage to wastewater and sewer facilities; and fast-track recovery utilizing federal disaster relief funding and blunting the financial blow to the city, department, and, of course, residents,” a media release said.
McAvoy has licenses in water treatment and distribution and wastewater treatment. He serves on the Wastewater License and Drinking Water License Advisory Committees for the Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) and Arkansas Department of Health. He chairs the Arkansas Water Works and Water Environment Association and teaches as adjunct faculty for the Arkansas Environmental Training Academy.
“I’m not blind to the numerous challenges we face,” McAvoy said, “but I’m excited by the opportunities we’ll be pursuing as we bring the department forward.”
The biggest challenge is continued work toward meeting obligations under the federal consent decree. After years of failing to maintain water and sewer infrastructure to federal standards, the city entered into a federal consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency in late 2014. The consent decree requires the city to make an estimated $480 million worth of sewer upgrades over the course of 12 years. Funding for consent decree work has come in part from water and sewer bill increases, which are up 167% since 2015. Funding for water and sewer work also comes from bonds supported by sales tax revenue and revenue from wholesale water buyers.
Walters, who had served as the city’s utilities director since April 3, 2016, was the fifth city department head to resign this year. Nathaniel Clark, the city’s first African American police chief, announced March 27 he was leaving the post for another police job in the Atlanta area. Clark stepped into the Fort Smith chief police job on Jan. 7, 2017.
Wally Bailey, who had worked under six Fort Smith city administrators, retired in June as the city’s director of planning to become the director of planning for the City of Van Buren. Finance Director Jennifer Walker resigned July 26 to take a job in Colorado. And George Allen, director of streets and traffic control, resigned Aug. 13. Additionally, John Settle, who served as the city’s prosecuting attorney for 11 years, died Oct. 26 after suffering a heart attack at a gym.
The City’s Department of Development Services was split into two separate departments – the Department of Development Services, which includes Planning & Zoning and Community Development, and the Department of Building Services, which includes Building Safety and Neighborhood Services. Geffken announced that Maggie Rice was promoted to director of development services and Jimmie Deer was promoted to director of building services Sept. 27.
Danny Baker, who had served as the city’s interim police chief since April 8, was named the new police chief Sept. 27, following a nationwide search that yielded 28 applicants. Matt Meeker was named the director of streets and traffic control Nov. 21. He had served as interim director since August.
Two finalists for the director of finance, Christopher Ford of Liberal, Kan., and Andrew Richards of Winslow, were interviewed Nov. 18. Victoria Runkle is serving as the interim director of finance.