Utilities Well-Managed, Consultants Tell Fort Smith Directors
Feb 08, 2013 (Times Record - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Consultants hired to scrutinize Fort Smith's water and sewer departments found little to criticize in a study they outlined before Fort Smith directors and members of a citizens committee Thursday.
"You have a good system and it's well taken care of," said Thomas E. Gould, vice president of HDR Engineering Inc., adding "It's going to take some investment to keep it operating smoothly."
Gould and Donald E. Lindeman, HDR senior project manager, summarized the findings they presented in a 105-page report directors ordered in August 2011 to gauge the efficiency of the utility systems.
While the HDR study turned up no obvious areas for significant cost savings or improved efficiencies, consultants did arrive at recommendations they said could give the city a better return on its investment.
Some recommendations addressed organization and operation of the departments, others addressed specifics of operation in the treatment plants and processes.
Among organizational recommendations was development of an asset management plan, recognizing the role of staff, infrastructure, buildings and system operations. That plan, Lindeman said, should guide the city in developing its capital improvement program.
Also recommended was creating a succession plan among staff. Consultants noted the city has an aging staff at its utility plants. They emphasized the importance of recognizing and preserving the institutional knowledge of seasoned workers to guide their successors.
The report also recommended improvements in utility billing and collection. A discussion on that topic included talk of a "smart meter" system with automatic monitoring on consumption and billing, transmitted electronically. Such a system, Lindeman said, could be used to help customers increase the efficiency of water consumption and can help the city more quickly detect problems in the system, such as line breaks.
Recommendations at the water treatment plant included establishing a watershed control program to improve the quality of raw water entering the system, monitoring the water inside the system to determine the necessary level of chemical treatment and investigating the feasibility of installing a microturbine system to generate and harness hydroelectric power generated by the pressure of water as it moves downhill in the system.
Recommendations were also given in the areas of rate setting and finance. The study emphasizes the importance of developing written policies for determining rates, developing a long-term financial model and monitoring the affordability of its rates. Also discussed was the implementation of additional fees charged to new customers who connect to service funded by earlier payments of long-term users.
The issue of Fort Smith's earlier history of violations and subsequent performance of Environmental Protection Agency-mandated system improvements was also part of the discussion. City Administrator Ray Gosack pointed out Fort Smith had "invested heavily" in system improvements, particularly over the past seven years. He said the work had allowed the city to "gain some credibility with the EPA and the Department of Justice," delaying for years the expected imposition of an EPA consent decree to govern operation of the wastewater system.
Gosack said a consent decree remains possible, but because of improvements, "there will be less to do" to meet terms set by federal regulators.
In discussion of rates, one committee member noted while the information offered in the report is beneficial to members of the committee and directors, little of it is communicated to the general public.
He told directors, "The average citizen, when he hears you say 'rate increase,' it means you're not going to be on the board next election day."
Lindeman agreed the value of the city's water and sewer systems is not communicated adequately.
Details of the report and recommendations of the advisory committee will be presented to directors in a future study session.
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