Fort Smith Hopes for Consent Consideration


Carl Geffken, Fort Smith’s city administrator, says the details of a consent decree with federal agencies is causing financial hardship as the city works to repair its sewer line problems. Sewer rates for residents rose 167 percent in 2017 and could rise further, he fears.
Carl Geffken, Fort Smith’s city administrator, says the details of a consent decree with federal agencies is causing financial hardship as the city works to repair its sewer line problems. Sewer rates for residents rose 167 percent in 2017 and could rise further, he fears. (Corey S. Krasko)
Jerry Walter, utilities director for the city of Fort Smith
Jerry Walter, utilities director for the city of Fort Smith

Delayed news is good news is Carl Geffken’s optimistic approach as he and other Fort Smith city officials wait to hear from the U.S. Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency on plans to upgrade sewer lines.

Geffken, the city administrator of Fort Smith, last month made a presentation to representatives of the DOJ and EPA in Dallas, asking the federal agencies to give the city some leeway in a decree Fort Smith consented to in 2015. The consent decree was negotiated to address violations of the Clean Water Act that had caused 119 million gallons of untreated sewage to be released into waterways since 2004.

“They really wanted us to prove to them the reason why we should receive this consideration and amend the consent decree,” Geffken said. “We made it clear that we need some changes to our consent decree. We hope the DOJ and EPA agree to them.”

The consent decree required to city to repair and upgrade sewer lines to prevent dry-weather overflows, which happen when a blocked or broken line discharges sewage wherever is handy. The decree runs through 2026, and the city estimated it would cost $480 million to fulfill its requirements.

Geffken said the city has raised sewer rates for its citizens — most recently 167 percent in 2017 — and sewer service now represents slightly more than 2 percent of the median household income, above federal guidelines. If the consent decree isn’t amended with more lenient terms, Geffken said, the city will have to raise its sewer rates to more than 3 percent.

Fort Smith has spent about $100 million on decree-related repairs in the past three years. “It will be a hardship on the city,” Geffken said.

Geffken and Utilities Director Jerry Walters joined Fort Smith’s city government after the consent decree was formalized. Geffken ran a city with a similar (and similarly priced) consent decree in Reading, Pennsylvania, and Walters has extensive engineering experience with the U.S. Army and the Pentagon.

Walters said the work on fixing the more than 500 miles of Fort Smith sewer lines is a painstaking process, but he has stressed efficiency in an attempt to lower costs. He said one renegotiated deal with a contractor saved the city more than $1 million.

The utilities department is using remote camera and acoustic technology to map out lines needing repair and prioritizing those fixes. Walters estimated that between one-fifth and one-fourth of the city’s sewer lines have been been brought up to satisfactory condition.

Geffken said the last increase in sewer rates added $3 million to the revenue, and the city has an $56.8 million water and sewer budget for fiscal year 2018. Not all of that money can be used for decree repairs because the city has a $12 million debt service and other regular expenses for maintenance, salaries and equipment.

Geffken also said raising rates can result in citizens restricting their water use to avoid higher bills.

“We have rate fatigue,” Geffken said. “We have adhered to the consent decree. You can’t stop doing the work and stamp your feet. We can do this, but there will come a point in time where we can’t afford to do it anymore.”