Federal consent decree ‘something the city just cannot afford’ says Fort Smith city boss

Oct 31, 2019

Fort Smith city officials are working on a plan that will put forth an alternative to the consent decree that they can present to federal officials in hopes of seeing some relief in the amount of money the plan is costing the city – money that city officials say they do not have.

Almost 37% of the more than $684.821 million 10-year capital improvement plans for Fort Smith’s water and sewer system presented to the Fort Smith Board of Directors at a study session Tuesday (Oct. 29) is related to federal consent decree requirements, with those requirements estimated to cost $31.42 million in fiscal year 2020.

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. Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency in late 2014. The consent decree requires the city to make an estimated $480 million worth of sewer upgrades over the course of 12 years. Funding for consent decree work has come in part from water and sewer bill increases, which are up 167% since 2015. Funding for water and sewer work also comes from bonds supported by sales tax revenue and revenue from wholesale water buyers.

Sewer bills now make up approximately 12.4% of the median income of the lower 25% of the population living in Fort Smith, Geffken said at the meeting, noting for many that can be disastrous.

The consent decree was originally put in place to address wet weather sanitary sewer overflow (SSO), said Lance McAvoy, interim Utility Director for the city. The city has shown that based on a two-year six-hour storm, it has addressed 95% of the wet weather SS0s, McAvoy said. However, the city still is still experiencing a high number of dry weather SSOs.

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