‘More questions’ likely part of upcoming Fort Smith budget hearing

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 459 views 

Fort Smith city directors will meet Nov. 4 to hear budget requests from all city departments during the annual budget hearing. Going into the meeting, directors are working to study requests, city finances and how the city’s money can best be used.

Over the past month directors have spent two study sessions hearing from some of the city’s departments regarding multi-year spending plans. At study sessions Tuesday (Oct. 26) and Oct. 12, the board of directors heard from the police and fire departments as well as the street department, parks and recreation and the utility department.

“I am still in the process of reviewing the draft budget ahead of the hearing on Thursday (Nov. 4). However, at first glance, the draft strikes me as a budget that balances needs and projected revenues in a prudent way,” said Director Jarred Rego.

The multi-year plans included almost $87 million for utility department projects in 2022 and an estimated $10.8 million proposed training center for the city’s police and fire departments.

The city’s engineering department plans for neighborhood street improvements, major street projects, drainage improvements, and traffic signal/intersection improvements totaling $45 million in 2022. Work planned between 2022 and 2026 totals $158 million and includes $15.5 million for the Kelley Highway extension to Riverfront Drive, and $3.337 million budgeted in 2023 for widening of Highway 45 between Zero Street and U.S. 71 South.

The Fort Smith Fire Department submitted a $3.491 million list for 2022 with a $1.55 million ladder truck the biggest line item. The Fort Smith Police Department submitted plans for $1 million in spending, which includes $380,000 for an incident response vehicle and $250,000 for primary patrol vehicles. The incident response vehicle would replace the 1998 Winnebago FSPD currently uses for a mobile command vehicle/station when needed, Police Chief Danny Baker said. He added that the vehicle could be used at larger events where police are some type of “mobile police department.”

The departments also listed a not yet budgeted item for “attention in the immediate future” for a $10.8 million combined police/fire training center. Answering questions from Director George Catsavis on whether the center would have an indoor firing range, Police Chief Danny Baker said the facility could include one, but the added costs might make such an item not feasible. FSPD currently uses an outdoor firing range at the city’s landfill.

Parks and Recreation Department capital improvement projects for fiscal year 2022 total $5.3 million. Larger items are $2.7 million in 2021 and 2022 for the Maybranch Trail and $1.95 million for Riverfront Drive sports fields. Maybranch Trail will be a 2.9 mile, 10-foot wide trail between Creekmore Park and the riverfront.

Equipment and other capital requests in 2022 from the Solid Waste Services Department total $2.88 million.

The largest budget tallies come from the city’s Utility Department, which is primarily responsible for work to meet 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 federal Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Justice in late 2014. The consent decree required the city to make an estimated $480 million worth of sewer upgrades over the course of 12 years. Because of inflation and the state of the city’s sewer system, that number is estimated to be closer to $650 million.

Over the past six years, the city has spent approximately $127 million in capital costs for required improvements added to the $200 million on storage tanks and equalization basins to reduce wet weather sanitary sewer overflows, the basis for the consent decree requirements, spent prior to the consent decree.

Following are summary totals provided by Utilities Director Lance McAvoy.
• The water 10-year capital improvement plan (CIP) total is $329.266 million. This includes estimated numbers to complete all of the phases of the water transmission line that will cross the Arkansas River.
• The total water CIP for 2022 is estimated at $30.68 million.
• The non-consent decree wastewater 10-year CIP is $159.882 million. The total non-consent decree wastewater CIP for 2022 is estimated at $19.434 million.
• The consent decree 10-year CIP total is $316.053 million.

“I believe it is important that we get more information on funding sources for the Utilities projects in the CIP. That may result in more questions about how we fund the projects,” said Director Lavon Morton. “I also believe, with the growth and development currently occurring in Fort Smith, it is critically important for our water projects not to fall behind. We also need to continue to make appropriate progress on consent decree work.”

Director Robyn Dawson said she appreciates the amount of time put into preparing the budget for the board’s review each year, noting that she likes the amount of justification departments give for their requests and the fact that it’s in a standardized format.

“It’s much easier to review each department’s budget. As for funding, I like that the administration is attempting to be prudent with revenue projections and operating budget reserves in programs funded by the general fund,” Dawson said.

Although she doesn’t like how much paper it takes to provide the budget to all the directors, Dawson said her concern about the process is that she would like there to be an easier way for residents to read and review the budget. Infographics would help explain the operating budget and capital improvement plans, she said.

“This is my fourth budget and by asking questions and my experience, I understand the budget much better than before becoming a city director,” Dawson said. “I like to question a lot of things, especially why we need additional positions, why costs increase, etc. … I also question some of the conclusions drawn by some about the City’s budget,” she said.

She said the information and supporting documentation for all the budget requests is available for everyone to read and review and she appreciates that. Her goal for the outcome of the budget sessions is that the city’s needs are addressed adequately, both for 2022 and for the future.

“We need to have our long-term needs be addressed, that includes our water and sewer needs, parks projects, as well as updating the solid waste analysis,” Dawson said.