Fort Smith chief blasts sewer deal

Gef­fken tes­ti­fies in Wash­ing­ton

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - FRANK E. LOCK­WOOD

WASH­ING­TON — Fed­eral and state of­fi­cials “brow­beat and co­erced” Fort Smith into ac­cept­ing costly changes to its sewer sys­tem, City Ad­min­is­tra­tor Carl Gef­fken told fed­eral law­mak­ers Tues­day.

As a re­sult, sewer bills have soared 167 per­cent in the past three years, plac­ing an un­rea­son­able bur­den on a com­mu­nity al­ready strug­gling eco­nom­i­cally, he said.

Gef­fken tes­ti­fied be­fore two sub­com­mit­tees of the House Com­mit­tee on Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form.

The hear­ing was en­ti­tled “Ex­am­in­ing Sue and Set­tle Agree­ments” and fea­tured tes­ti­mony from for­mer Michi­gan Gov. John En­gler and oth­ers.

Fort Smith, pop­u­la­tion 87,351, had run afoul of the Clean Wa­ter Act for years. Fed­eral of­fi­cials had been push­ing the city since the 1980s to com­ply with fed­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards.

From 2004 through 2014, Fort Smith re­leased raw sewage more than 2,000 times, dump­ing more than 119 mil­lion gal­lons of sewage into the Arkansas River and other water­ways, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. De­part­ment of Jus­tice.

All that un­treated sewage af­fected wa­ter qual­ity and en­dan­gered public health, fed­eral of­fi­cials said.

In Jan­uary 2015, Fort Smith and fed­eral of­fi­cials an­nounced they’d come up with a con­sent de­cree — a legally en­force­able set­tle­ment de­signed to re­solve the is­sues.

The price tag topped $450 mil­lion.

Since then, Fort Smith has hon­ored the terms of the agree­ment, Gef­fken said.

“I can as­sure you the city has taken this con­sent de­cree se­ri­ously,” he said. “How­ever, the city has ma­jor con­cerns about fu­ture com­pli­ance be­cause as­pects of it are unattain­able for the city.”

Gef­fken sin­gled out the Jus­tice De­part­ment and for­mer state At­tor­ney Gen­eral Dustin McDaniel, say­ing they pres­sured the city to take the deal. McDaniel and a Jus­tice De­part­ment spokesman de­clined to com­ment Tues­day.

When dis­agree­ments arose dur­ing the ne­go­ti­a­tion, a Jus­tice De­part­ment at­tor­ney warned a law­suit had al­ready been drafted and was ready to be filed, Gef­fken told law­mak­ers.

“The city was pre­sented with two op­tions: Spend­ing mil­lions in le­gal fees re­quired to con­test the con­sent de­cree or ac­cept it,” he said.

In­stead of lit­i­ga­tion, the city ac­cepted a set­tle­ment — the “sue and set­tle agree­ment” the hear­ing ex­am­ined.

But the re­sult­ing bur­den is too heavy, Gef­fken said. In Arkansas’ sec­ond-largest city, 29 per­cent of the res­i­dents have in­comes be­low the poverty level, which is twice the na­tional rate, he said.

They’re be­ing forced to pay a dis­pro­por­tion­ate per­cent of their in­come on sewer ser­vices, he added.

Repub­li­can mem­bers of the Sub­com­mit­tee on In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Af­fairs and the Sub­com­mit­tee on the In­te­rior, En­ergy and the En­vi­ron­ment wanted to know if the fed­eral gov­ern­ment was mis­us­ing its power.

Democrats ar­gued the fed­eral gov­ern­ment plays an im­por­tant role in pro­tect­ing public health.

“If we’ve learned noth­ing else from the tragedy of wa­ter poi­son­ing in Flint, Mich., it is that state gov­ern­ment should not be left to their own de­vices to en­force health and safety reg­u­la­tions,” said Stacey Plas­kett, the Vir­gin Is­lands’ del­e­gate to Congress.

Third Dis­trict Rep. Steve Wo­mack, a Repub­li­can from Rogers whose dis­trict in­cludes Fort Smith, also at­tended Tues­day’s hear­ing and spoke on the city’s be­half.

Wo­mack later said fed­eral of­fi­cials should rene­go­ti­ate the terms of the agree­ment so it’s less oner­ous.

“We feel like the heavy hand of gov­ern­ment ig­nores the true im­pacts that these de­crees have on the peo­ple down­stream, be­ing the pa­trons of the city of Fort Smith,” he said.

The high sewer rates also make it harder to at­tract in­dus­try, Wo­mack said.

“The im­pact here can have eco­nomic con­se­quences that can go for decades,” he added.

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