01 Jul Specialist Jonathan Cartu Publishes – City weighs utility drive-thru
Jeff Dingman, deputy city administrator for Fort Smith, takes ques- tions from the Board of Directors during Tuesday’s study session. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Saccente) –
Photo by Thomas Saccente
FORT SMITH — The Fort Smith Board of Directors is considering a temporary drive-thru facility that would give residents a new way to pay for water and wastewater services during the pandemic.
Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman wrote in a memo that the utility department reached out to other utilities and municipalities to investigate techniques used to protect employees and the public from the spread of covid-19. Officials learned that other utilities had drive-thrus — but not Fort Smith, the state’s second-largest city.
“Most utilities have completely closed their offices to the public and now rely solely on the drive-thru windows for payment,” Dingman wrote. “Administration and the utility department investigated options for a drive-thru location that we could rent or lease for a temporary period of time during the covid crisis. The thought is that the drive-thru will allow for social distancing between the public and staff, thus reducing the chance of transmittance of covid and possible interruption of service due to staff shortage.”
City Directors heard a presentation on the matter during a study session Tuesday evening.
Although Dingman wrote that a drive-thru location behind the Area Agency on Aging at 524 Garrison Ave. is available for lease, several repairs and upgrades are necessary for it to be used as a drive-thru collection site. The city has largely settled on terms for leasing the facility, pending the approval of the board of directors.
“To expedite the repairs and modernization, the city would provide $1,000 towards landlord’s scope of improvements,” Dingman wrote.
“Additionally, the city will supply the computer connections and equipment as needed, and the equipment will remain as the city’s property. The pneumatic tube conveyance system must be evaluated for repair, which would be the city’s cost. The total cost of the lease is $10,000 over the 12-month lease agreement, including the initial $1,000 and then rent of $750 per month. The city would bear the cost of utility services.”
Dingman wrote that a 12-month lease would be proposed to provide time for the covid-19 crisis to pass and evaluate the public’s reception to the drive-thru payment option. The city could choose to continue using the site, which would be staffed by current collections and citizen service employees, if the crisis still exists or public use is high at the end of the lease.
The temporary site will also allow for the use of a “drive-up after hours payment drop box,” according to Dingman. It may also be eligible for some reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency because of it being in direct response to the covid-19 public health emergency.
Dingman, along with City Utility Director Lance McAvoy and Joshua Robertson, deputy director of business administration for the utility department, answered questions from the board.
At-Large Position 6 Director Kevin Settle asked if the idea would be to have both the drive-thru and the utility department location at 623 Garrison Ave. as options, or to only have the drive-thru. Dingman responded, at least for the time being, it would be to have both, with the staff being split between the two locations.
In response to another question posed by Ward 1 Director Keith Lau, McAvoy said this year’s numbers indicate that 24% of utility department customers pay in person, 28% do it by mail, 3% by phone and 45% online.