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Consultant ban could pinch WisDOT

Paul Snyder
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A Wisconsin budget amendment that would prohibit the use of private consultants during state furloughs or hiring freezes could handcuff timelines for road projects.

“You can’t reduce staff and expect work is going to go out the door as quickly as it did before,” said Mark Klipstein, a project manager in the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s southeast region.

Nevertheless, the amendment is a necessary first step toward cutting down WisDOT’s use of private consultants on projects, said Klipstein, who also is president of the Wisconsin State Engineering Association.

He said some WisDOT regions use consultants as often as 70 percent of the time.

The amendment, which is in the Senate and Assembly versions of the state budget, stipulates state agencies experiencing a hiring freeze or furlough period cannot hire private contractors or consultants to perform service work normally done by state employees.

“It’s basically a ‘you can’t have it both ways’ amendment,” said state Rep. Pedro Colon, D-Milwaukee. “On one hand, you’ve got the governor talking about furloughs and hiring freezes, and, on the other hand, you’re spending boatloads on consultants.”

A state audit released last month reviewed cost estimates for 214 WisDOT projects and estimated the state could save $126,750 if those jobs were engineered by WisDOT staff instead of private firms.

Klipstein said although the state needs to cut back on its use of private consultants, WisDOT staff has been limited for the last few years.

“It’s at a point now where using consultants is the only way WisDOT can put out work,” he said.

The amendment does not prohibit consultants from working on projects financed with federal stimulus money. But once those projects are completed, Klipstein said, WisDOT might still have to deal with limited staff.

“And if we can’t deliver our program,” he said, “some of the consultants start to lose the work they were counting on in the future.”

State Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, has championed the amendment since the Joint Committee on Finance sessions and said there are solutions if WisDOT’s project timelines are dramatically altered.

She said agencies can ask the finance committee to allow consultant use during particularly trying times.

Lassa also said the amendment requires WisDOT report to the finance committee within a year to determine the most appropriate use of private consultants.

“If an agency can provide a cost-benefit analysis indicating it would be more effective to use a consultant, we’ll listen,” she said. “But it seems like agencies are just moving toward consultants whether it saves or costs the state more money.”

The amendment would not affect all state construction activity. David Helbach, administrator in the Wisconsin Department of Administration’s Division of State Facilities and secretary of the state Building Commission, said most DSF work with architects and engineers is done under construction contracts as opposed to service contracts.

“I’d be out of business if it applied to construction contracts,” he said. “We’re in a whole different boat than WisDOT.”

The state’s drive to save money is understandable, Klipstein said. But the department can only do so much with what it has.

“We’ve lost so much expertise through retirement and not hiring,” he said. “The whole system needs to be re-evaluated.”

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