Fort Smith Utility Department Announces New Drive-Thru
(January 4, 2021) – Fort Smith, AR. The City of Fort Smith Utility Department is pleased to announce the grand opening of the first utility payment drive-thru. The new facility will open on January 4, 2021, at 517 Rogers Avenue behind Tip Top Western Wear. City of Fort Smith customers may choose this option to pay their City utility bill in person, without the cost of metered parking or the need to enter City Hall.
On July 7, 2020, the Board of Directors approved the lease for a temporary drive-thru for utility bill payments. On September 15, 2020, the Board of Directors approved funding for the repairs and upgrades needed to make the drive-thru operational. Since that time, the Utility Department has been working diligently to open this service to the public. The new option enables social distancing between customers and staff.
The City leased the drive-thru for temporary use due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on utilization and public feedback throughout 2021, the drive-thru has the potential to become a long-term service offered to customers.
The Utility Department continues to research and evaluate processes and methods to improve customer relations and support.
Fort Smith First Responders Provide Unified Command During Gasoline Spill(December 31, 2020) – Fort Smith, AR. Fort Smith Fire and Police Departments provided immediate emergency response and Unified Command to a hazardous gasoline release Wednesday night. At approximately 6:45 p.m. on December 30th, Magellan Midstream Partners, LP (“Magellan”) reported a gasoline release at their storage and distribution terminal located at 8101 Highway 71 S, Fort Smith, AR. Firefighters initially responded to a complaint of a gasoline odor in the area and were able to track the odor to the hazardous liquid in the ditch area just off Highway 71 South. Magellan representatives shortly appeared on the scene to coordinate their emergency mitigation plan with the City Fire and Police Departments, who responded to the incident.
As part of the emergency mitigation plan, Magellan immediately identified the source of the leak, isolated their pipelines, and initiated a larger scale investigation to assess the possibility for larger area contamination. No larger contamination in the neighborhood was found. Magellan also reported the incident to the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Arkansas Department of Energy & Environment’s Division of Environmental Quality, who will monitor Magellan’s cleanup and mitigation efforts.
Overnight, multiple city departments provided a team response to mitigate the hazard and prevent further impacts to nearby Mill Creek. City staff deployed gravel and concrete “Jersey Barriers” to help dam up the ditches and prevent further downstream flow or potential contamination during wet weather.
City of Fort Smith responders, air quality and environmental specialists, and Magellan staff are still in the process of completing the response. Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman said “Magellan is working with the appropriate regulatory agencies on this incident and keeping the city informed. No associated injuries, road closures, or evacuations have been reported and air quality readings for the surrounding area remain safe. Magellan is also expected to report on the cause of the accident when it can be determined.”
City of Fort Smith and Oak View Group Facilities Name Marc Mulherin as General Manager of Fort Smith Convention Center: Mulherin to Lead Company's Focus on Increasing Events and Revenue-Generating Opportunities for Fort Smith(December 29, 2020) – Fort Smith, AR. The City of Fort Smith and Oak View Group Facilities announce the hiring of Marc Mulherin, the Fort Smith Convention Center’s new General Manager. Mulherin is a 20-year veteran of convention center and hotel operations across the United States.
On Monday, January 4, 2021, Mulherin will lead the Oak View Group team in aggressively selling and marketing the Fort Smith Convention Center, securing live entertainment, increasing meetings and conventions, consumer and trade shows, as well as local corporate and social events. Oak View Group, was selected to operate the City’s Convention Center starting on
January 1, 2021.
Before joining Oak View Group, Mulherin was the General Manager for the Branson Convention Center in Branson, MO, since 2014 where he led building operations, finance, food and beverage, and sales and marketing. During his career he also served as Assistant General Manager at McCormick Place in Chicago, IL; Food and Beverage Director at TD Garden in Boston, MA; and Director of Catering at Lancaster County Convention Center in Lancaster, PA. He also worked for Aramark, leading food and beverage sales for several convention centers, including Boston Convention & Expo Center and Hynes Convention Center in Boston, MA; the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA; and the Los Angeles Convention Center and Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, CA.
He received his Bachelor of Science in Business Management from Bryant University in Smithfield, RI.
“Marc has an extensive knowledge of facility management with an emphasis on sales, events, and food and beverage,” said Shura Garnett, Senior Vice President, Oak View Group. “He is a strategic business leader and adept at driving new financial growth in sales, food and beverage, and building operations revenues. At Oak View Group we take great pride in making sure our local, on-site leadership quickly becomes engaged within the community and we know Marc will do great things for the City of Fort Smith.”
“We are confident that Oak View Group is the right team to re-establish Fort Smith as a premier destination for meetings and conventions. Marc has a proven track record and an outstanding reputation for leading venues like ours to great success,” said Carl Geffken, City Administrator.
Fort Smith Mayor, George McGill added, “We look forward to working with Marc and the Oak View Group team in making Fort Smith a premier destination for meeting planners, event managers, and show producers.”
OVG’s innovation and entrepreneurial spirit to make a positive disruption in the live entertainment and sports industry is making a difference in the hospitality industry, as well. In addition to securing the contract for the Fort Smith Convention Center, OVG recently added the Charleston Convention Center in Charleston, WV, the Jackson Convention Center in Jackson, MI, and the Fredericksburg Expo and Convention Center in Frederick, MD, to its management portfolio while reducing the City of Grand Junction (CO)’s subsidy by $200,000 in 2018 at the Grand Junction Convention Center.
OVG Facilities’ success in delivering new event content and programming opportunities for its clients is evidenced in a 587% growth since 2018, including 10 new accounts in 2020.
Oak View Group Facilities, a division of the Oak View Group, which was founded by Irving Azoff, Tim Leiweke, and supported by Silverlake, specializes in event programming, venue assessments, and security and emergency preparedness. Oak View Group Facilities can also provide full management services for arenas, stadiums, convention centers, and performing arts centers. Oak View Group is the largest developer of sports and entertainment facilities in the world with $4.5 billion of deployed capital across eight projects.
City Welcomes Sam Terry as its New Prosecuting Attorney
(November 19, 2020) – Fort Smith, AR. The City of Fort Smith is pleased to announce the hiring of District Judge Sam Terry as its new City Prosecutor. Mr. Terry begins his new job on January 4, 2021, and will report directly to the City Administrator, Carl Geffken.
"We are honored and excited to have landed such a uniquely qualified individual for this position,” Geffken said. “Sam has a long history of leadership and a multitude of professional accolades in the community. We found this speaks volumes about his commitment to the City, and complements his impressive professional experience that will be incredibly helpful to the City.”
Judge Terry currently serves as a District Judge, an appointment he received by Governor Hutchinson in 2019. He is also a former deputy prosecuting attorney for Sebastian County. He previously served as a Trust Officer and Assistant Vice President at First National Bank of Fort Smith, where he handled a wide range of complex legal and business issues, including financial planning and the administration of trusts and estates. Judge Terry was also previously appointed to serve as Special Associate Justice for the Supreme Court of Arkansas.
Possessing significant leadership in the community, Judge Terry serves as Chairman of the Sebastian County Election Commission, President of the HOPE Humane Society, President of the Children’s Emergency Shelter Foundation, and as Treasurer of the Fort Smith Museum of History. He is a member of the Sebastian County Bar Association, which was recognized by the Arkansas Bar Foundation as an Outstanding Bar Association during his tenure as the organization’s past president. A graduate of Leadership Fort Smith, Terry now sits on the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Education Committee, which oversees and helped create the Chamber’s Junior Leadership Academy. The Northwest Arkansas Business Journal named Terry as one of the members of their “Forty under Forty” (2018).
After receiving his B.S.B.A. from the University of Arkansas in 2002, Terry obtained admittance to the Arkansas Bar Association in 2005, the same year he attained his J.D. from the University of Arkansas.
An active member of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Sam currently lives in Fort Smith with his wife Jennifer and their son Bentley. In anticipation of his new role with the City, Terry said, “I am looking forward to the opportunity to serve as the Prosecuting Attorney for the City of Fort Smith, and I appreciate the confidence that Mr. Geffken and the Board of Directors have placed in me for this important job. I will continue to uphold the law and to treat all litigants with fairness, dignity, and respect, as I have during my entire career. I am proud to call Fort Smith my home, and I am excited to continue working to make it a wonderful, safe place to live.”
About the City Prosecutor’s Office: Reporting to the City Administrator, the City Prosecutor exercises exclusive jurisdiction over violations of city ordinances and represents the City in prosecuting all criminal misdemeanors, traffic violations, and violations of city ordinances arising in the City. The City Prosecutor has concurrent misdemeanor jurisdiction with the Sebastian County Prosecuting Attorney except in those misdemeanor cases specifically designated for prosecution by the Sebastian County Prosecuting Attorney.
Fort Smith Parks & Recreation Department Lights up Parks Early This Year
(November 16, 2020, Fort Smith, AR) -- The City of Fort Smith Parks & Recreation Department is pleased to announce that the holiday lights at Creekmore Park have been installed and are ready to light up the night sky! Traditionally, City Parks’ staff turns on the lights the Friday night following Thanksgiving. However, this year, the City has decided to flip the switch a little early – at 5 p.m. next Monday, November 23, 2020.
Parks and Recreation Director, Doug Reinert stated “The Parks Commission met last week and discussed the plans for this year’s holiday light display and the operation of the Holiday Express Train. Given we are still in the middle of a pandemic, The Parks Commission determined the safest way to proceed would be to NOT operate the Holiday Express train to keep people as safe as possible. As a consolation, the Commission decided to have City Parks’ staff flip the lights on a little early so people could enjoy the holiday ambiance a little longer.”
Director Reinert added that City Park’s staff will take other necessary precautions to reduce person-to-person contact for visitors to the park. “We will be installing one-way directional signage for people who choose to visit the park on foot. We ask that people please stay 6-feet apart, wear their masks at all times, and when possible carry hand sanitizer.”
The light celebration and program draw thousands to Creekmore Park each year. City Administrator Carl Geffken applauded the staff for moving so quickly to install the lights and welcome the holiday a little earlier. “We are excited to continue the lighting tradition this year despite the pandemic. While we won’t be running the train, or encouraging people to come out as they have in years before, we believe our citizens and visitors can still enjoy the Creekmore lights and holiday ambiance from a safe distance – especially from inside their cars. We want everyone to comply with the CDC’s guidelines to protect their health and the health of their friends and loved ones during the holidays. We encourage everyone to enjoy the lights responsibly and take this opportunity to possibly create new holiday traditions like exploring other parts of downtown Fort Smith, like the shops along Garrison Avenue, or a walk along Riverfront Pavilion, Pendergraft Park, and Cisterna Park in the Downtown.”
The City began the Creekmore Park lighting display with just a few lights on display in 1993. Some of the lighting displays have been handmade by Park staff over the years. This year, the City did not operate the Creekmore Park Train as normal (March-August, 2020) because of the pandemic. The City will not re-open the train until the pandemic subsides.
Fort Smith Public School Students Take over the City of Fort Smith’s Social Media!
(October 5, 2020, Fort Smith, AR) —The City of Fort Smith is turning its social media platforms over to some very special individuals in the City; photography students at Northside and Southside High. “It’s called a social media takeover, and it’s a way that the City can engage the youth in our community. As a municipality, we want to involve our City’s students, showcase their talents, encourage their creativity, and enable them to share their unique perspectives with our social media audiences,” said Shari Cooper, the City’s Public Relations & Communications Manager. The takeover begins on Monday, October 5, 2020. Each day the City will allow the students to post some of their favorite photographs on the City’s Facebook and Instagram channels.
“A few weeks ago, Northside Photography students visited the skate park/riverfront area to photograph the essence of downtown Fort Smith. After seeing the photos on social media, The City of Fort Smith's Public Relations & Communication Manager asked if Northside and Southside students would like to submit photos for a “Peace in the Parks” theme as part of a social media takeover. The students were so excited to participate!” said Christina Williams, Coordinator of Public Information for the district.
"When The City pitched the theme, “Peace in the Parks,” the students were thrilled for their work to reach a larger, authentic audience. What a privilege to serve our city with our talents," said Northside High School Photography Teacher, Leigh Ann Hasley.
Southside High School’s Journalism Teacher, Susan Colyer added, “Utilizing the talent of the city’s youth for the “Peace in the Parks” initiative created a wonderful educational opportunity. For student work to be showcased on a digital platform to help promote the park system presented a teachable moment. Photographers seeing their images featured to help advocate for their hometown is an important acknowledgment of the student's voice in the community.”
“It’s that hometown pride and love of Fort Smith that is so contagious,” Cooper said. “The world we see is created by what we focus on. There are many different ways to look at the world, the City, and the challenging times in which we live. In a COVID-dominated world, we thought it would be a refreshing idea to focus on the younger generation’s perspective and the positive aspects of living in Fort Smith.”
The takeover will run through the first week of November. Fort Smith residents are encouraged to visit the City’s Facebook and Instagram pages: Facebook (@FtSmithAR) and Instagram (@FortSmithAR) to view, like, and share the student’s photos to support these young, budding photographers. The public is also invited to search the student's campaign hashtag "#PEACEINTHE PARKS."
Here are some quotes about how the students felt about the project and their assignment.
Utility Department Customer Notification: Late Fees Resume October 2020(October 5, 2020, Fort Smith, AR) — To support all citizens' health and welfare during the coronavirus crisis, the City of Fort Smith Utility Department suspended nonpayment late fees and disconnects. Beginning October 22, 2020, the Utility Department will reinstate late fees. To avoid penalties, affected customers should make every effort to pay past due accounts, including 2019 payment plans.
A temporary Payment Plan option is available to help residential customers bring past due accounts up to date. The Payment Plan program applies only to residential customers with at least two unpaid bills that were due between January 1, 2018, and October 15, 2020. Beginning October 16, 2020, all bills, late fees, and future charges must be paid on time to avoid disconnection.
Customer payments on Utility bills are applied to the oldest outstanding bill. To avoid late fees, customers can place multiple outstanding bills into the payment plan. After customers are in an active payment plan, any bill payment will be applied to new bills that would be subject to a late fee. Customers with outstanding bills occurring between 2018 and 2020 should contact the Utility Department to sign up or confirm they are in an active payment plan.
Customers should refer to the most recent billing statement for any outstanding amount due and billing cycle due dates. Direct questions for account balances and payments to:
City of Fort Smith Utility Department
623 Garrison Ave
Fort Smith, AR 72901
Phone: (479) 784-2262 | Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Online Payments: accounts.fortsmithar.gov
See City Code Sec. 25-44. – Penalty for failure to pay
New Call Center Launches to Address Customers' Utility Billing Issues
(January 15, 2019, Fort Smith, AR) — Beginning 8:00 a.m. Tuesday, January 15, residents using the telephone to get help with their utility bill reached one of six newly-reassigned Utility Department staff members specially-trained to address specific issues arising now after December’s deployment of a new, citywide accounting and billing system. The call center will be open Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., to address customers’ needs.
Rather than calling, though, if possible, customers with questions, concerns or needing personal assistance are asked to email email@example.com. This dedicated email address allows an even larger number of staff to address the volume of customer needs and requests, responding individually, with more time and other flexibility as they fulfill other of their job duties.
For those who do call Utility Billing (784-2262), as of today, callers are routed to the expanded staff in the new call center. There are more dedicated phone lines, and staff are focused squarely on answering phone inquiries and meeting customers’ needs related to their new utility bills. If all six new call center operators are busy, overflow calls will spill over to the staff who normally answer utility customer calls and who have been hard-pressed to handle the recent volume and demand while serving the large number of customers who walk in, in person, to be served at the department’s customer windows on Garrison Avenue.
“About half our customers—so we’re talking 17,000 people or more—pay their water bill in person, the old-fashioned way,” said Finance Director Jennifer Walker. “We’ve had six to 10 staff, at any given time, struggling to meet the demands of a sharp and constant call volume and continuous flow of foot traffic, customers face-to-face, while processing mail and other payments, and everything else. It’s been difficult,” she said.
New call center staff can handle any utility customer request but are specially trained to address current recurring customer demands. These fall into four main “buckets:”
- Problems with successfully setting up an online payment account
- Questions and concerns about their water bill
- Questions about payment options
- Service requests
Dealing with customers’ issues over the last several weeks, here’s the latest information and direction from staff dealing directly with customers’ and their new utility bills:
- As of today, every one of the City’s approximately 35,000 customers has been mailed a bill. To the remaining few customers who have not yet received their new water bill: If you do not get your bill by Monday, January 21's mail, please contact Utility Billing by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 784-2262. (Please make sure to check your January 21 mail first, though.)
- Look at your bill. If your bill indicates it is to be paid by automatic draft and you don’t want that to happen, you should email Utility Billing immediately at email@example.com or call 784-2262.
Overlapping the citywide billing software switchover, the Utility Department has long been in the process of replacing hardware—old, aging water meters—in various neighborhoods. The old, outdated meters did not always measure accurately the water used. The new meters are manufactured, calibrated, and tested so they read the exact amount of water usage. Customers surprised by bills that may be significantly different from what they’re used to also have flooded customer service lines, windows, and other service channels.
No matter the issue, City Administration and staff are committed to working in partnership with customers to resolve all problems, concerns, and questions.
“We know there have been some growing pains as we’ve moved to update both our hardware and software,” said City Administrator Carl E. Geffken, “We sincerely apologize for the problems and appreciate people working with us as we work through this.”
“Residents all tried to set up their new accounts at once on the first day the new system was available,” Geffken said, reflecting on the spike in customer service demand. “We’re not sure why that was, but as people encountered difficulty or had questions, they turned to the phones—so many, all at once, that they crashed our telephone provider’s lines a number of times,” he said.
“Of course, customers calling had no way of knowing what was going on—they just knew they couldn’t get an answer or got a recording. That’s maddening! Enormously frustrating! Believe me, it was also frustrating and aggravating for City staff. We leaned on our phone service provider, and now we’ve expanded the number of lines. We think this new call center will help, allowing us to resolve customer issues faster, relieving everyone’s frustration,” Geffken said.
Initial system deployment difficulties have been worked out, Geffken said. The main problem area remaining now is responding to the hundreds of individual requests for assistance regarding setting up a new payment option or answering individual account questions regarding a customer’s bill.
SETTING UP ONLINE PAYMENT
The majority of customers calling and emailing the City have sought individual assistance to help with their account information. To set up online payment, either directly with the city or at the customer’s own financial institution, they must have and must correctly input customer-identifying information about their utility account. The main questions being put to City staff are:
- What is my account number?
- What is the specific name on my account?
Many customers who had signed up for paperless billing and/or auto-pay, either directly with the City or at their financial institution, said they never saw their bill, didn’t know how to access their e-bill, and kept no available records. So, they said, they had no idea what their account info was and no way to get it.
For each personalized inquiry like this—and there have been thousands—City staff have worked individually with the customer, taking their name and address, and looking up the person’s account information for them, replying to the customer’s email to firstname.lastname@example.org or directly over the phone.
EXACT NAME MATCH
Initially, many customers setting up an online account with the City or arranging other automatic draft encountered difficulty when required to provide their name exactly as it appears on their account. Due to the trouble hundreds of customers had with that, our team adjusted the software, dropping the “exact name match” requirement, switching instead to require only the customer/account numbers to match perfectly.
Careful attention also is required when inputting customer and account number fields—the order is reversed and not all digits, such as a series of zeros, are needed and aren’t accepted. Hundreds of customers have needed individual staff assistance to retrieve their customer/account numbers and input the number fields correctly, as instructed.
QUESTIONS ABOUT WATER BILL
Also, for weeks now—since planned changes were announced in mid-late November—customers have flooded phone lines asking questions such as:
- When will I receive my water bill?
- Why have I not received my bill?
- Why is my most recent bill higher than normal?
- Will my water be shut off because I haven’t received a bill?
Each of the City’s approximately 35,000 utility customers received a letter and sample bill in the mail in late November, seeking to explain what customers could expect as the City switched over to a new accounting system and making clear that no customer’s water would be shut off, nor would anyone be assessed a penalty for late payment associated with the switchover. Regardless, social media misinformation and rumors have fueled some customers’ fears, leading them to call or email the City with concerns about late payment, penalties or loss of service.
Again, unequivocally, despite social media disinformation and dead-wrong rumors, no one’s water has been shut off, nor have any penalties been levied to date.