Director eval of Fort Smith city boss still pending

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,614 views 

While a formal mid-year evaluation of the Fort Smith city administrator has not yet occurred, at least some on the Fort Smith Board of Directors are looking at goals for the remainder of the year with progress being made on the consent decree staying at the top.

Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken’s mid-year review,  originally scheduled for July 12 and moved at that board meeting to the following board meeting, was pushed back again Tuesday (July 19). Even so, some directors gave their thoughts on things they would like to see the city’s administrative team concentrate on through 2022.

“City Administration has been successful in using a collaborative approach and including many stakeholders in addressing a number of matters so far in 2022,” said Director Lavon Morton.

Geffken provides a list to directors of accomplishments, Director Robyn Dawson said, noting that directors then have the opportunity to question him on those items or others as they see the need during the evaluation process. The list, she said, is mainly to remind board members of things completed since his last evaluation.

This year, Geffken’s list includes 25 accomplishments that came about through the city with the help of private and public stakeholders, including passage of the sales and usage tax, planning a replacement dog park, Owens Corning and WeatherBarr economic development projects, and the Foreign Military Sales Project. The city also completed work on a new road for Owens Corning plant and received an almost $1.7 million federal Economic Development Grant to help pay for that road, Geffken’s list noted.

Other city-focused accomplishments include sidewalks on Rogers and Phoenix avenues; the rollout of Payit for customer use in paying municipal utilities bills; completion of the 2021 audit on time with no findings; Creekmore Park upgrades; hiring a mobility coordinator, information technology director and solid waste director; completion of a new water slide at Parrot Island Waterpark, completion of the John Bell Jr. inclusive park; continued work on the city’s new website.

“I have to say I am happy with the accomplishments for the city and for the citizens,” Dawson said. “There has been a focus on what the board has said they wanted to do. We now have all the department head positions filled with quality people, and I think that helps the city tremendously.”

For the rest of the year, Dawson and Morton agreed progress needs to be made on the consent decree.

In a May 24 election, Fort Smith voters extended two sales tax extensions that will pay for federally mandated sewer system improvements, an across-the-board police pay increase of 23.87%, fire department needs, and ongoing and future parks improvements.

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. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal 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.

Geffken noted in the list of accomplishments that the city is “awaiting what should be positive responses from the appeal to the Eighth Circuit regarding the need to complete all 4’s and 5’s as part of the consent decree and the trial for the recycling lawsuit.” An attempt by the city to remove the category four and five lines, which according to Utility Director Lance McAvoy may not need to be repaired for many years, was blocked by U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes III in August 2021. If that decision were to be reversed on appeal, it could save the city between $100 million and $150 million.

A Grade 5 pipe segment is described as one that “has failed or will likely fail within the next five years. Pipe segment requires immediate attention.” A Grade 5 manhole is described as one where “failure has already occurred or is likely to occur.” A Grade 4 pipe segment is described as one that “has severe defects with the risk of failure within the next five to ten years.” A Grade 4 manhole is described as having cracks, deterioration or visible deformities.” By comparison, Grade 1, 2, and 3 pipe segments and manholes have less severe defects.

Morton said he would also like to see consideration of all aspects of the ongoing water supply line construction in the city. He also would like to see administration further address flooding on the north side of the city; consider whether and how abandoned residential structures can be addressed; and continued improvement and enhancement of city financial information and related transparency.

“Of course, we need to secure the flight training project … and continue to recruit new industry while supporting our existing new businesses. We also need to be sure and do whatever support is necessary to help AR-DOT facilitate the completion of the new 1-49 bridge and interstate,” Dawson said.

Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith, the home of the 188th Wing, was selected in 2021 by acting Secretary of the Air Force John Roth to be the long-term pilot training center supporting F-16 and F-35 fighter planes purchased by Singapore, Switzerland and other countries participating in the federal Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. The tentative schedule has Ebbing receiving the Singapore F-16s in 2023 and the F-35s in 2025.

It is estimated the center would be home to 345 U.S. military personnel and bring to Ebbing or Selfridge an estimated 180-plus members of the Singapore unit and around 300 dependents.

A final decision by the Air Force on the training center location is pending.