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Debate continues over WisDOT consultant use

By Paul Snyder

Discussion took a new direction Wednesday in lawmakers’ examination of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s use of private consultants on various projects.

“We need to get over the question of which costs more,” said Tom Walker, Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association government affairs director. “And we need to get onto the question of asking what WisDOT needs.”

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Audit Wednesday held a hearing on WisDOT’s use of private consultants vs. its own staff for project engineering. The meeting was a follow-up to the hearing last September which WisDOT Secretary Frank Busalacchi and his top aides did not attend.

Busalacchi was again absent Wednesday, but his executive assistant, Chris Klein, was on hand to answer committee questions.

The topic again was a May 2009 state report which said WisDOT used private consultants on 125 projects in a 16-month period, despite finding it cheaper to use state workers.

That data not only spawned committee interest in the issue, but also helped spur a bill by state Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, requiring, among other things, that state agencies only choose a consultant over in-house staff if an analysis shows the agency would save money as a result.

But Klein told committee members the department is not avoiding the use of state employees.

“There wasn’t state staff available,” he said. “There wasn’t a choice available to use consultants over state staff. There is a misleading belief that the department is choosing to use consultants over state staff. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The problem, he said, is two-fold. For one, the biennial state budget process limits the department’s foresight in determining how many employees it can and should hire.

The other problem, he said, is the cost-benefit analyses that compare costs between private consultants and state staff are not adequate measuring tools. The analyses only examine costs to complete a specific project, Klein said. They do not examine long-term costs of maintaining workforces or additional commitments state staff or consultants might have after a project is finished.

Still, that’s the only data available for lawmakers.

“We need to be able to make decisions based on data that helps us,” said state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, and co-chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Audit. “We need data that shows us what we would save if we increased positions. We need that blueprint.”

Walker said the crux of the problem falls on lawmakers that championed staffing cuts in previous budgets.

From 2002 to 2005, the state budget cut WisDOT positions by 6.3 percent. In the 2005-07 budget, they were cut another 6.8 percent.

The use of consultants was the only choice WisDOT had, Walker said, and cost-benefit analyses do not tell the whole story — they only provide gross estimates.

“I can give you an estimate for anything you want,” he said. “Until you get into the project, you don’t know what you have. Once you get onto a job, you find out things you didn’t or couldn’t think of before.”

What the Legislature should do, Walker said, is eliminate cost-benefit analyses for WisDOT. He suggested measuring state and consulting staff’s skill-sets as a better comparison tool.

Vinehout said she’s willing to listen, but concrete evidence of savings will drive budget changes. There is still not enough information on alternative data, she said, and the debate likely will continue behind Lassa’s bill.

“We’re not done,” she said. “There are still a lot of questions that need to be revisited.”

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