Keith Lau ends term as city director; praised for organizing city budgets

FORT SMITH, Ark. – Nearly one and a half decades of holding public service have come to a close for Keith Lau.

Lau, who for eight years has overseen Ward 1 in Fort Smith, will hand his post over to incoming city director Jared Rego at the beginning of 2021. Lau is most recognized for organizing the city’s budget system, which Vice Mayor Kevin Settle said greatly benefitted the city during public catastrophes in 2019 and 2020.

The owner of KCP Real Estate, Lau served six years as a planning commissioner for the city before running for Ward 1 in 2012, in which he won the majority of his primary to claim office.

“I felt a civic obligation to better the city of Fort Smith and thought that I had the skillset to do it,” Lau said, noting his background in real estate and development. “With how vendors and developers and realtors and owners all interacted, I felt that I could bring improvement to this city, so I got involved.”

The city in 2012 was “reeling,” Lau said, from the loss of the Whirlpool plant that year.

Lau said the city didn’t have accounting systems or accountability he or the rest of the board thought they should have. Settle noted that the city in 2013 — Lau’s first year of office — had a general fund balance of 8%.

Settle said Lau’s efforts, which Lau said included “asking tough questions” about costs of service and creating a fixed asset program, were at least partially responsible for bringing the city’s general fund balance up to more than 50%.

“The past two years, we’ve survived a major flood in the community and COVID-19, and our city has continued to chug along due to these financial policy changes that have been implemented over the past eight years,” Settle said at Lau’s final meeting on Tuesday night.

“I felt that I changed the city of Fort Smith for the better,” Lau said.

While Lau’s financial accomplishments have helped the city, he at times raised eyebrows when discussing solutions to homelessness in downtown Fort Smith. He and other directors also took the brunt of public outrage over the city overcharging residents for water when old meters were replaced and the payment process updated in 2019.

In reference to homelessness, Lau said the homeless with mental illness need a treatment program where they can receive long-term care. And as for water bills, he spoke well of the steps the city took after it was brought to their attention.

“The city jumped in and put the call center in, which has improved the level of customer service, and we’ve gotten a lot of those issues resolved,” he said.

Lau said he believes the call center is a service Fort Smith has added to move from a town to a full-fledged city. He said he has also seen the city improve its economy and infrastructure in the last decade, citing the record value of building permits in the decade.

“We could have sat on our thumbs and not done anything when Whirlpool left, but we chose to take an aggressive role and rebuild and retool, and we’re starting to see the benefits,” he said.

Lau joked that he looks forward to his week actually starting on Monday now that he won’t have to prepare for Tuesday meetings. He said being out of public office will allow him to spend more time with his family.

But even out of office, he’s proud of the progress Fort Smith has made.

“The city is doing a lot of things, and I think it’s paying off,” he said.

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