The ongoing debate over manual and automated refuse collection may finally come to an end at the next regularly scheduled meeting (June 5) of the City of Fort Smith Board of Directors.
At the Tuesday (May 29) Study Session, City Director Philip Merry proposed a resolution (seconded by Director Steve Tyler) that would leave 13 of 21 remaining neighborhoods under manual services, following the results of a survey that showed only eight of the neighborhoods would prefer automated collection.
The survey, which cost an additional $12,767 on top of an existing $38,000 in expenses for previous surveys related to the issue, encompassed 2,954 rate payers, some with multiple properties. Only 804 actually participated, and of that 804, around 442 wanted to stay with manual collection.
Merry said “the 55% (who oppose automated collection) of the 27% (who responded) is pretty clear,” and that he believed the results of the survey should be honored.
However, city director Andre Good noted the board “did not listen to the first two surveys the city conducted,” which indicated a majority would prefer automated collection.
Kevin Settle, city director and vice-mayor, agreed. “The fruit was poisoned from the time we reverted back (to manual collection), and the surveys were tainted. People heard what they wanted to hear.”
Supporting Settle’s view, T. Baridi Nkokheli, director of the Department of Sanitation (DOS), told board members his department has also heard from many in the affected areas that the lower rate of participation was “due to a certain apathy since the board had voted against the stated preferences of the majority on the last two surveys.”
Nkokheli continued: “We didn’t get a lot of people, who felt it would matter one way or the other (how they responded).”
Speaking in favor of the automated system, Nkokheli said the change has made up for “the inefficiency of our antiquated equipment, and saved us money on employees,” adding that the department “won’t fully realize the benefits under a hybrid (manual plus automated) system.”
Nkokheli said that if manual collection is kept in place, his department would need “six additional full-time employees” and “to update our manual equipment, which are currently five to seven years past their useful life,” adding that manual trucks in city inventory “get less than one mile per gallon.”
If the DOS was allowed to finish the switch to automated, Nkokheli said they would need “no new employees” and he could even foresee a rate decrease from the $14.38 monthly charge customers are paying.
After the meeting, The City Wire asked City Administrator Ray Gosack what would happen to customer rates should manual be kept in place in the remaining areas.
“Ultimately, that would be up for the board to decide, whether they wanted to assess it across all of Fort Smith or have two separate rates,” Gosack said.
Gosack also noted each customer could see “as much as a $2.50 monthly rate increase” applicable to the entire service area, despite “only 15% of customers” using the inefficient model.
SPORTS COMPLEX WORK
Also Tuesday, the board discussed a grant application for the River Valley Sports Complex (RVSC), which could enlist the Arkansas Army National Guard in providing “clearing, grading and earth work” as early as this summer.
Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, a co-organizer of the RVSC project, estimates the services are “between $250,000 and $400,000” in value.
The summer start could find the RVSC seeing funds earlier than expected. And since enabling tax receipts from the 0.25% sales tax approved in March will not arrive until December, the funds would have to draw from the Sebastian County Girls Softball League (SCGSL) allotment, according to Gosack.
However, the funding shift would not change the board’s priorities for the money in that the SCGSL field additions at Ben Geren Park would still begin and conclude prior to the RVSC project.