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Fort Smith lawsuit in court over funds used while city brought recyclables to landfill

Lawyers for residents who filed the civil suit say they are wanting compensation for the money Fort Smith used for "pretending to recycle."

FORT SMITH, Ark. — The case is looking at the city's sanitation department and their use of funds collected monthly from customers from July 2015 until May 2017.

A Sebastian County Circuit Court judge heard arguments Monday, June 27 in Fort Smith between the City’s sanitation department and customers.

The class-action lawsuit was delayed due to appeals and the COVID-19 pandemic, but on Monday things got underway with testimonies from city officials, sanitation department managers and expert witnesses.

It is alleged that during a 22-month long period, between July 2015 and May 2017, the sanitation department misused funds collected from Fort Smith customers. The approximately $13 fee was charged monthly to residents and included in that fee were costs for collecting and proper disposal of recyclables.

During that time period, the City’s contract with Green Source Recycling in Clarksville had expired and offered a bid for renewal at $35 per ton of material. The City of Fort Smith Sanitation Department was looking for other options due to the rising cost of recyclable disposal and as a result, more recyclable materials ended up elsewhere.

Plaintiffs allege, by the City’s own estimates, over 95% of residential recyclables ended up in a landfill.

Customers were not notified of this at the time, as the city chose to present a solution to the problem once it was found, and maintains the monthly fee was more than reasonably priced based on expert opinion.

The attorneys representing customers argued against this saying customers deserve some sort of compensation for fees that were spent when recycling efforts were paused.

“We’re suing them (City of Fort Smith) for the amount of money that they spent on pretending to recycle,” said attorney Whitfield Hyman. “I think people need to hold their government accountable for how they spend the money we’re ordered to spend by statute, whether or not we recycle.”

The City of Fort Smith disagrees stating that the revenue from fees during this time went towards current and future sanitation expenses. They also argued that asking customers to stop the habit of recycling and then restarting it after a new contract was secured would be more detrimental and costly. That was some of the argument for them not telling customers at the time of recyclables going to a landfill.

City Administrator, Carl E. Geffken tells 5NEWS, “you can’t stop one small portion without understanding the knock-on effect it will have.” Geffken went on to say that if recycling were to stop, “we’d have to stop yard-waste collection, it would take longer to collect standard waste because all that recycling would now need to be collected by our automated trash trucks.” 

That additional strain on material and personnel would have also added to a higher monthly fee.

Since 2017, Geffken says the City of Fort Smith has rectified the issue and 100% of recyclables are sent to material recycling facilities.

The trial is ongoing, an update will be provided as soon as it is made available.

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