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Fort Smith Board begins 2013 budget review

story by Aric Mitchell
amitchell@thecitywire.com

Budget hearings for 2013 launched Tuesday night (Nov. 13) at the Bartlett Community Room inside the Fort Smith Police Department. The focus was on streets and traffic control, sanitation and water and sewer.

But first the Fort Smith Board of Directors received an overview of the 2013 budget from city finance director Kara Bushkuhl before hearing about planned revenues and expenses for the coming year from each of the three department heads.

Bushkuhl estimated general fund revenues at $46.6 million, an increase of 13.9% from $40.9 million in 2012. The 2013 budget "anticipates a 1% increase in franchise fees and a 2% increase in property taxes," Bushkuhl said, adding that "budgeted county sales tax revenue is expected to increase 1.25%" over the 2012 estimate.

On the expense side, the general fund will witness expenditures of approximately $49.9 million, an increase of 18.6% over the 2012 budget "due to the new sales tax programs for fire and parks," Bushkuhl added. Personnel authorizations show an addition of 16 full-time equivalent employees.

The operating budget for 2013 is $109.5 million and the capital projects budget is $107.3 million for a total of $216.8 million. In addition to the general fund allotment, the Street Maintenance Fund is budgeted at $7.2 million; the Water and Sewer Fund at $39.4 million; and Sanitation at $13.1 million.

HIGHWAY TAX MONEY
Part of the new revenue the city will take in comes from the statewide 0.5% highway tax increase voters approved on Nov. 6. A new sidewalk construction program will begin as a result in early 2013 costing taxpayers around $917,900.

Sidewalk construction and repair will concentrate in downtown Fort Smith and in the areas near Northside High School, Darby Junior High School, Tilles Elementary, Howard Elementary and Park Elementary Schools.

Total funding sources will see a $306,000 increase from 2012 due entirely to state turnback funds allotted from the tax increase. Collections will not begin until July 1, 2013, and the city estimates that it will realize $640,000 during the abbreviated year with an estimated $1.5 million per year during the 10-year lifespan of the tax.

RATE REDUCTION, NO INCREASES
The Sanitation Department will follow through on a 2012 promise to the citizens of Fort Smith with a 7.7% reduction in the residential sanitation fee.

As a result of the board's decision to move to citywide automated waste collection – and a voter initiative that sealed the deal with close to 80% approval – Fort Smith Sanitation customers will pay $13.28, a reduction of $1.10 from the $14.38 fee, which will remain in effect until July 1, 2013.

"This rate reduction will save citizens $1.8 million over a five-year period," said Fort Smith Administrator Ray Gosack, stating that "all parts of the budget are balanced without any local tax, rate, or fee increases."

Total revenue for the water and sewer department is estimated at $37.8 million, a 2.3% decrease from the 2011 budget and a 3.1% decrease from 2012 estimates. No rate increases were requested for the 2013 budget in spite of total expenses of $39.4 million eclipsing the revenue side.

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PAY INCREASES, BUDGET FORECAST
The proposed budget also included close to $2 million in pay increases for city personnel. Around $943,000 will come as a cost of living adjustment (1.9%), while an additional $1.08 million will qualify as "merit increases."

Budget hearings will continue at 6 p.m. Thursday (Nov. 15) at the FSPD Bartlett Community Room with a tentative closing date of Monday (Nov. 19). A final budget is planned for the board's review at the Dec. 4 regular meeting.

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