Homeless efforts, trails, animal control part of Fort Smith budget review

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,402 views 

The Fort Smith Board of Directors added some items to its budget goals for the coming year to include a focus on trails and parks, the 188th’s new mission, water rates, and the city’s homeless problem among others during the mid-year budget review held Wednesday (July 27).

The board holds the meetings annually to guide the city’s goal direction, said City Administrator Carl Geffken.

“We look to come out of this with two or three important goals set forth by the board. In years past, raises and replacement of police department equipment have been goals that have come out of these,” Geffken said. “As the city has grown and as additional revenues have been levied, that tight budget has been cured. Currently with the expansion and growth in sales tax revenues, we have much greater leeway. And the departments have managed budgets very well, which has allowed for a record fund balance.”

Directors Lavon Morton and Jarred Rego mentioned a need for funding for code enforcement. Rego said he would like to see funding for additional personnel for code enforcement. Morton took things further and said he would like the city to look more closely at abandoned homes or properties to see what can be done to stop the eyesore on the city’s landscape.

“I’m talking about ones that are obviously abandoned and have been for some time, those with plywood over windows. I don’t know the appropriate amount of time – a year, two years, five. Whatever is best to get those (long abandoned properties) to be taken care of,” Morton said.

Rego said one of his other goals for the board would be to develop a comprehensive plan to have the city’s trails completed within the next five to eight years. Director Neal Martin expanded on that, saying he would like to see enhancements of the city’s existing parks.

“We went a long time without those being upgraded. We need to focus on that and beef up our parks,” Martin said.

Several board members brought up the need for funding to focus on the city’s ever-growing homeless population. Suggestions ranged from looking at other cities that have dealt with the issue successfully for best practices to hiring someone whose main focus would be to focus on the homeless issue.

“I agree with the suggestion for a homeless coordinator. We are not winning that battle, and I am sure there are model cities out there that are. I am interested to see a difference, so this time next year we are more involved in that,” said Director Robyn Dawson.

Directors Kevin Settle, Rego and Morton said that along with someone who could lead the city’s efforts on the homeless issue, the city might consider hiring a liaison to work with the city and the military and those involved with the proposed Foreign Military Sales (FSM) program in Fort Smith.

Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith, the home of the 188th Wing, was selected in 2021 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.

Rego suggested that perhaps an ex or retired military person could help the city work with the defense department and industry.

“We need to support the 188th mission and the new mission of F-35s. As we bring in new people to this city, we need to do whatever it takes,” Settle said. “It is the project of the state. … I’m willing to put any expense towards that.“

There was also a consensus on a focus on helping the police and fire departments. Rego said he would like to see funding to raise salaries of police officers and firefighters to bring their salaries up to “the highest salaries in Arkansas” at some point in the future. Director George Catsavis said he would like to see animal control moved from the Fort Smith Police Department to a private company or non-profit organization in order to free up more officers for patrol or other needs.

Geffken said there are talks about moving animal control services to Fort Smith Animal Haven.

“They will bring a contract to the board, and the board can decide,” Geffken said. “It is still something we pay for, we would just move the positions and the funding from the police department.”

Other goals presented including working more on flooding on the city’s north side; looking at water rates, supply and infrastructure; considering raising wholesale rates on water Fort Smith provides to other cities; how to support the city’s growing universities (both the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and Arkansas Colleges for Health Education); looking to extend what Ben Geren and Parrot Island offer; and additional air travel out of Fort Smith.

“It also would be nice if we could get some partnerships or sponsorships that could make the (indoor sports complex) happen,” Martin said. “I envision a sports complex by the river with a Branson Landing type of shopping/eating district that could roll into the U.S. Marshals Museum. You get all these things kind of built together and it becomes a destination where sales tax dollars start growing.”