A state lawmaker is challenging a Wisconsin Department of Transportation rule that forces municipalities to hire outside engineers for local projects eligible for state money.
“From my perspective, if a city is already employing an engineer, it makes more sense to use those services that are already being paid for,” said state Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire. “If we can cut costs and save taxpayers money by using in-house engineers, why wouldn’t we?”
Smith’s bill, which would let municipalities use their own engineers for projects eligible for financing through WisDOT’s Local Roads Improvement Program, was referred on Wednesday to the Assembly Committee on Transportation for a public hearing.
Through the Local Roads Improvement Program, WisDOT helps counties, cities, villages and towns improve local roads that are seriously deteriorating. Under the program, WisDOT can reimburse a local government for up to 50 percent of the cost for a completed improvement, provided that the contracts awarded are based on competitive bidding.
Smith said his bill is not a knock against competitive bidding, but would give local governments the option to use their own engineers for road design work.
It’s an option that municipalities need, said Mike Golat, Altoona’s city administrator. With a shrinking budget and decreased state aid, the city must seize opportunities to save money where it can, he said.
“I’m not going to get into the debate of pitting city engineers against contracted engineers,” he said. “But all things equal, if you’re paying an engineer on staff a burdened rate along with what he’s already being paid, and he can find time in his schedule to design a project, it’s going to be cheaper than paying another engineer on top of the money you’re paying your own guy.”
Time in the schedule will be the deciding factor, said Matt Gundry, a project manager with Fleming, Andre & Associates Inc., an Eau Claire-based consulting engineering firm.
“Smaller municipalities are going to have trouble maintaining staff to deal with the projects a city looks at,” he said. “Eventually, they’re going to have to go outside for something.”
Gundry said FAA does little work at the municipal level, but handles a number of projects through WisDOT.
Engineers are concerned about the debates over in-house staff versus contracted help.
“If WisDOT does decide to use its staff more, that will take work away,” Gundry said.
But with federal stimulus money providing plenty of design work for private engineering firms, Gundry said the company has a healthy workload this year and is likely to continue that trend next year.
But if Wisconsin is unable to maintain those work levels once stimulus projects dry up, he said many engineers could be in trouble.
Smith said his bill is aimed at streamlining projects and local budgets, not sparking a larger debate about governments’ use of private engineering firms.
“That debate is always going to be there,” he said. “Frankly, it’s good for government.”
But forcing municipalities to contract engineering work when they have their own staff available is not good for anyone, Smith said.
“It’s always been a pet peeve of mine that municipalities have to contract with outside firms,” he said. “If you have someone already on the payroll, you should be able to use them.”