Fort Smith Director Philip Merry is ready to look at rate increases for the non-automated solid waste collection areas of Fort Smith. His open door to a rate increase comes after a June 5 meeting when Merry assured Fort Smith residents there would be no increase.
“Concerning a rate increase — this goes up, that goes up — nothing goes up unless the people on this board vote for it, and that isn’t going to happen, not in this current configuration,” Merry said during the June 5 Board of Directors meeting.
On Wednesday (June 20), Merry told The City Wire, “We (the board) are ... wanting to redirect the financial pressure to the non-automated homes so that the automated homes could realize benefits of the added efficiency.”
The shift occurred after Merry said he had “missed a very key document” at the May 29 study session of the Fort Smith Board of Directors when he motioned to end automated conversions for all of the remaining 20 neighborhoods (also classified as 21 neighborhoods when adding in non-designated portions of the city).
Merry said he was under the impression “it was an all or nothing thing” — an answer first stated on Tuesday by City Director Pam Weber, who also voted with Merry to end the conversions.
If that was the impression May 29, then why had that impression changed on June 19 when Merry motioned (seconded by Weber) to bring back seven neighborhoods into the automated conversion plan?
“As you (The City Wire) and everyone else are very aware, I made an apology last night (June 19), and it was because that I didn’t see it, grasp it and do it earlier. I do know how to read. I’m a college graduate. I just didn’t see that. I wish I had seen it and been a tiger by the tail at that time. But once you know you should have done it earlier, is that a reason you never do it ever? I’m not the cover-up type. I’ve got to sleep at night.”
Merry apologized again for “not having a better understanding” of the citizen survey results document from the May 29 study session.
“There were seven (neighborhoods) that wanted it, voting for automation, and never was it my intent to not let them have it,” he explained.
Merry revealed that prior to the Tuesday night (June 19) board meeting, he had asked Baridi Nkokheli, director of the Fort Smith Department of Sanitation, to look at “recalculating rate differentials” for areas of Fort Smith under automated and non-automated collection services. Nkokheli is expected to deliver his recalculations on Friday (June 22).
“If he were to come back up and say he could make the numbers work with no rate increase at all (to either service), I’d still want him to go back and figure another rate increase (to non-automated) so that you can then give automated this theory of a rate decrease.”
Merry continued: “I told him (Nkokheli) my hope would be he could come out with some rate differential for (the non-automated) neighborhoods and make it not be that painful (as in a previously quoted figure of $10.18 per month).”
“Here’s the math,” Merry said. “I’ve asked (City Administrator) Ray (Gosack) to give us a firm rate on the price differential. Three weeks ago, he came up with an arbitrary ten bucks, and I told him, ‘Ray, even numbers always make me wonder. Now I know when you do rate studies, you always guess high. Is it reasonable to say in the end that it’s not really a $10 difference (between automated and non-automated)? If in addition to that lower number, we take these seven locations that clearly wanted automated, wouldn’t that make the number charged come down even more?’”
City Director and Vice Mayor Kevin Settle believes the choice is to not have a dual collection system.
“Automation for the city is the right thing to do. Ultimately that is the goal,” Settle said. “Maybe we should automate the whole city and not have these discussions about two different systems.”
If a higher rate is proposed for non-automated collection, Settle says residents in those areas should be consulted before the Board approves a “hybrid” system of trash collection.
“The citizens of those areas should have an opinion on that,” Settle said.
To the current petition efforts of Fort Smith citizen Joel Culberson to move the entire city to automated collection, Merry said, “In the end, if Joel's petition does occur, and voters choose to vote out a compromise — well, let’s allow the compromise do its thing, and if people don’t like that, they will vote against it. But please don’t freeze everything. There is work to be done here in the interim.”
But what if residential customers receiving the non-automated service don’t wish to pay a rate increase?
“Now they’ve been given a choice, and at that point, I can vote automated, because now they’re denying the compromise. We’re down to the last parts, and it will naturally take care of itself in one to two years, but compromise and working with people in the interim is important,” Merry said.