Fort Smith needs better sewers, a reality that’s been plain for years, and it’s steadily cleaning and refurbishing its 538 miles of pipe, officials say.
But it’s also years into challenging federal orders to spend more ratepayer dollars on the fix, something the city says would cost residents too much: 2.5% of average household income just for the sewer portion of their bills.
The city agreed to a 2015 consent decree with the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency after violating the Clean Water Act with untreated sewer discharges into local waters that totaled 119 million gallons from 2004 to the time of the decree.
For the last few years, Fort Smith has sought to modify the 12-year decree, even as it spent hundreds of millions of dollars on sewers and raised rates 167% between 2015 and 2017.
Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken says residents understand the city’s need to devote a sizable chunk of its budget to sewers, “but at the same time, residents, city government and business leaders know that constantly increasing rates for goals that are not necessary from an engineering judgment will make Fort Smith a less attractive place to live and locate a business.”
In seeking modifications, the city filed for an informal dispute resolution last year, and Geffken said months passed before a response came back from the federal government. “At the end of that, the Department of Justice said we’ll give you five more years to do the work — all the work that’s in the consent decree.”
Committing to all that work, he said, would raise sewer rates to about 2.5% of household income — more than $77 a month for a family earning $37,000 a year. That would satisfy the government, but “it’s still unaffordable, and nobody in the country has that high a sewer bill,” Geffken said.
‘Effects of Aging Infrastructure’
A 2018-2019 water and wastewater rate survey by Black & Veatch Management Consulting reported that most of the nation’s 50 largest cities offer sewer rates well under the EPA’s general affordability guideline, 2% of average household income, which was calculated at $61,372 nationwide. That 2% affordability number computes to $102.29 per month across the country, but would represent a bill of about $62 a month at Fort Smith family income levels. That would be at least $15 less than the average bill foreseen under a strict application of the consent decree.
Black & Veatch reported that rising sewer rates around the nation “are a direct result of cities and utilities grappling with the effects of aging infrastructure, rising operational costs, evolving capital funding mechanisms and regulatory requirements.”
Fort Smith has learned that cleaning old pipes, rather than costlier methods prescribed by the EPA, has been most successful in preventing sewage overflows, Geffken said, adding that residents already pay 1.8% or 1.9% of family income for sewers.
So the city is fighting on with a formal dispute resolution filing, and a reply from the federal government is due today.
“If their response is not to our liking, we will file with the court to go before the federal court here in Fort Smith,” Geffken said. The city’s argument is that despite missing one milestone last year — falling short on the number of miles of pipe cleaned — it is now addressing that shortfall and has largely met other goals in the decree.
“We’re hoping to get before a judge and really lay out our plan,” Geffken said. “We’re not against the Clean Water Act and making sure we treat our sewage properly, and that our system works correctly. But people have said, well, I wish I wasn’t the one having to pay so much.”
Geffken said improper sewage discharges have fallen significantly. “We built storage to handle high-flow periods during rainstorms,” he explained. “And now, we need to focus not on infiltration and inflow but rather focus on cleaning the pipes first and gaining an accurate hydraulic model. Then we can know where we actually need to upsize pipes and not do it in a compressed fashion.”
From 2015 through 2019, the city cleaned 275 miles of small-diameter pipe, as well as 16 miles of large-diameter pipe. Fort Smith also replaced 32 miles of pipe.
At the time of the consent decree in 2015, the budget for all required work was forecast at $480 million. But that figure has ballooned to about $650 million. It’s quite a burden, Geffken said, considering the city has spent about $350 million on sewer improvements and cleaning since it came under U.S. scrutiny.
“Before the consent decree, the city spent $200 million, and so far I’d say we’ve spent $150 million since that point,” Geffken said. “The residents approved a sales tax to pay for bonds to finance part of this work. So there’s a realization that this can be done, but we don’t want to make this a blank check that continually results in more spending.”
Income Numbers Disputed
Geffken said original estimates were that 25% of the city’s sewer lines would need addressing, but that figure turned out to be closer to 50%.
Fort Smith’s Water & Utility Department, which oversees the sewers, is the city’s largest, with an annual budget of $58 million, 46% of the total city’s operating budget of $125.2 million, Geffken said.
High rates have played into decreases in total water use in Fort Smith, he said. “We project a 1% reduction in water usage each and every year, and that’s partially rate fatigue. It’s also because of newer appliances like more efficient toilets and washing machines. As people learn the cost of water usage and incur the sewer fee, they tend to be very prudent in their use of water.”
The city and the federal government can’t even agree on the relevant count of Fort Smith’s median household income. The city puts it at $36,532, computing for the years 2013-2017, but the federal agencies are calculating it at $40,004. The U.S. figure, Geffken said, is derived from 2014-2018 numbers. “They say that by adding one year, the median household income in Fort Smith increased by 9.5%, but I’ve not seen that in our sales tax figures or in the economy. And now, with COVID-19 and the resulting unemployment, I’m sure the $40,004 number doesn’t reflect reality.”
Geffken has a new top lieutenant in his campaign for better sewers, Water & Utilities Director Lance McAvoy, who became acting director when Jerry Walters left the post in mid-2019. After a national search, McAvoy, a 20-year veteran with the department, took the title officially on Dec. 16.
“I do think this is all going to be worked out in the end,” said Geffken, who moved from Reading, Pennsylvania, to take the Fort Smith job in 2016. “Well before I got here, the city did have the oldest administrative order outstanding to do work. Because it was slow in complying, the EPA came in and said we’re going to put you into a consent decree.
“And a consent decree is a contract, a very tightly worded and binding contract,” Geffken continued. “We understand that work needs to be done, and it continues to be done. But what we’re looking for is a balance.”