Why Minnetrista needs a staff city engineer

A 178 page document, written by the city’s contract engineering firm, WSB Engineering, was provided to council members less than 2 business days prior to the council meeting on March 18 where we would be asked to approve the plans and specifications for Minnetrista’s 2019 street improvement projects that will cost the city over $800,000 this year. This Plans & Specifications document lays out the engineering specifications and bidding requirements for the year’s road projects. Would it surprise anyone that this document was never reviewed by a qualified, impartial party?

I asked our legal counsel if he had reviewed the 178 page document and he indicated he had not. I expressed a concern that none of our council members are engineers, qualified to assess whether or not these plans and specifications should be approved, nor do we have anyone on staff qualified to review them (other than WSB, the contractor that wrote them). My concerns were minimalized by our City Administrator who essentially said we should trust our contract engineering firm, WSB, who authored the document, to review it on our behalf. In my opinion, that would be appropriate had they no financial interest in the street improvement projects. But. They. Do.

I voted not to approve the plans and specifications. However, the rest of the council approved them, regardless of their ability to understand them. I wasn’t surprised by this, nor was I surprised that the concerns I voiced during the March 18 council meeting were not mentioned in the meeting minutes. I  requested the minutes be amended to accurately reflect the concerns I raised.

Minnetrista needs a staff city engineer without a financial interest in the engineering projects required by the city. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t contract with outside engineering companies when necessary. It means we would have confidence our decisions prioritize Minnetrista residents’ interests over city contractors’.

 

 

February 21, 2018

City of Minnetrista refutes economic principles of marketplace competition:

IT’S CLEAR FROM OUR MEETING LAST NIGHT THAT CITY COUNCIL HAS NO INTEREST IN SEEKING COMPETITIVE RATES WHEN IT COMES TO PROFESSIONAL SERVICES CONTRACTS for engineering services. One council member actually stated she didn’t think it was necessary to do anything that the League of MN Cities didn’t require the city to do. I wonder if she knows the League of MN Cities has no jurisdiction whatsoever over Minnesota cities and never has. The state doesn’t require cities to competitively bid professional services contracts but many cities choose to because they know that without competition prices go up. Minnetrista is sending a message, loud and clear, to constituents that its allegiance is not to taxpayers but to special vendor relationships.

Arguments against seeking competitive bids last night ranged from (and I’m paraphrasing since the video isn’t accessible yet) “We don’t want to lose the knowledge and history we’ve had with our current firm” to “Request for Proposals (RFPs) are expensive and don’t facilitate competition.” My response was we don’t necessarily need to lose the knowledge and history with our present firm. If they want to respond to an RFP with competitive rates we can choose to keep them. RFPs are not that expensive, especially when you consider the likelihood of getting more competitive rates as a result.

Minnetrista hasn’t competitively bid their professional engineering services contract for over 13 years. Is it any wonder our current engineering contract allows them to charge the city $90/hr for general clerical work?

Evidently in 2016 the city council then was concerned with this same issue and asked staff to research other engineering firms and their rates. What was shown to us last night was a 2016 matrix of 3 firms and their ranges of rates for work performed by different positions within each firm. Some of these rate ranges varied by close to 90% between the top and bottom part of a given range. It was evident, to me at least, that given the wide range of prices at which a particular position could be billed out, that it would be impossible to accurately compare these firms by looking at ranges of rates in this manner. This was simply a futile exercise designed to put off the matter without issuing an RFP.

I had hoped that the special presentation last night titled “Professional Services DISCUSSION” would actually be a discussion about the merits of competition in the marketplace, how seeking competitive rates could benefit our community and lower our rising infrastructure costs. What we got was a one-way presentation by the City Administrator giving reasons we shouldn’t issue an RFP. When I asked a question during his presentation I was told by the Mayor to write down all my questions and wait until the end to ask them. Clearly we have different ideas of what a “discussion” is.

Also at last night’s meeting:

COUNCIL MADE A DECISION AT THEIR WORK SESSION TO PROHIBIT SHORT TERM RENTALS in residential areas, defining “short term” as less than 30 days. The number of residents concerned about this issue has been growing in the community. Staff will seek input from the Planning Commission before holding a public hearing on the issue and will then submit an ordinance for council’s approval at a future meeting.

February 17, 2018

IF YOU CARE HOW YOUR MINNETRISTA TAX DOLLARS ARE SPENT YOU WILL WANT TO ATTEND TUESDAY NIGHT’S MEETING (2/20 at 7pm, council chambers) and let council know that it is time to make sure Minnetrista is getting competitive rates on engineering services. We spend a huge portion of our annual budget on roads and infrastructure projects and it has been 13 years since we’ve officially evaluated competitive rates in this market. My sense is staff and council may need encouragement from constituents to make this happen.

I had asked for a work session to discuss rebidding Minnetrista’s professional services agreement for engineering services at a previous meeting and we agreed to schedule it for a work session. Work sessions are designed to allow for free discussions. I just saw there is now a “Special Presentation” titled “Professional Services Discussion” on our council agenda. Special presentations at regular council meetings are usually one-way (hence the word “presentation”) but this item says it is a discussion so I’m hoping that is what it actually is and not just a staff member giving all the reasons why we should not rebid this contract.

I’ve been contacted by several residents that have given examples of what they consider over-priced projects from our present firm and I have encouraged them to attend this meeting to voice their concerns and also to send their documented concerns to other council members. I have expressed my own concerns regarding rates in the past, specifically charging $75/hr for clerical work. Interestingly subsequent to that meeting our contracted engineering firm changed the title of that category to “office technician” and raised the rate to over $80/hr.

I am not making allegations of unethical behavior by anyone. I am advocating that since there are concerns from residents that those concerns be taken seriously. We have an obligation to assure residents the rates we’re paying for engineering services are competitive. We simply cannot assure that when it has been 13 years since they’ve been evaluated.

I have learned that engineering companies often provide ranges of rates in response to proposals from cities and, depending on who performs the work, the rate could be toward the upper end or the lower, depending on the skill level of the individual. I have advocated, should the city decide to rebid the engineering contract, that Minnetrista require specific rates for specific tasks from all the firms that respond to the bid. Skill levels can be categorized and specific rates identified for each. Unless we do that it will be impossible to compare them. Ranges of rates are unacceptable in my opinion and don’t promote competition.

If you can’t attend let your council members know where you stand on this. Minnetrista City Council email addresses: lwhalen@ci.minnetrista.mn.us; sbruce@ci.minnetrista.mn.us; mmolitor@ci.minnetrista.mn.us; pmortenson@ci.minnetrista.mn.us; pthoele@ci.minnetrista.mn.us