There is no timetable for when Fort Smith officials will know if a federal mandate to upgrade the city's sewer system can be renegotiated following the city administrator's testimony to a U.S. House of Representatives committee, he said.
City Administrator Carl Geffken testified before the House Committee of Oversight and Government Reform in Washington, D.C., last week about the effects of the federal consent decree that requires the city to make about $480 million worth of upgrades to its sewer system in a 12-year period. Since the city entered into the consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2014, sewer rates have increased by 167 percent.
"There is no way to give a timetable," Geffken said Tuesday at the city's Board of Directors meeting. "The Department of Justice at this point is still understaffed, and despite the request — the continued request of Sen. Boozman and Congressman Womack and Sen. Cotton — their understaffing at the moment is precluding them from being able to have a meeting with those three representatives. The point is that's why we need to keep doing what we're doing in order to keep that timeframe as short as possible."
During the same meeting, the directors voted 6-0 with At-large Director Tracy Pennartz absent to approve $307,960 on engineering services to replace about 7,673 feet of pipe.
The consent decree requires that the pipe be replaced by 2022 with a larger pipe to reduce sanitary sewer overflows, but Utilities Director Jerry Walters recommended that it be replaced now because it is failing.
"Recently, a sink hole developed along one section of the pipe," a memo from Walters to Geffken states. "When excavated, it was found that a section of the pipe had deteriorated to the point of failure. The pipe leaked and washed out the soil which caused the sink hole. An emergency repair of the leak was completed and the pipe was put back in operation. However, because of the severe deterioration of the pipe, it was decided to move the project up for immediate design and execution. This will resolve the capacity issue and the severe deterioration of the pipe."
Geffken said this is an example of how the the consent decree does not fit.
"In this instance, the pipe did have a problem with the crack down the bottom," he said. "That's what caused the sinkhole, and here we are now having to replace (7,673) feet of that pipe. We don't get credit for bringing that forward from 2022, but we know that we have to replace it. My point to this is this is another reason why we need to modify the consent decree."