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Consultant spending challenges lawmakers

Paul Snyder

Wisconsin lawmakers have a choice: Accept state agencies’ increased use of private engineering consultants for construction projects or give the departments more money to hire more people.

“I don’t know what the answer is on this thing,” said state Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay. “I think it does come back to the government making the decision about how much money to put out, but it’s such a murky issue and the more complicated the project, the murkier it gets.”

The Legislature has studied more closely consultant use since a 2009 state report on Wisconsin Department of Transportation practices. According to the report, WisDOT, during a 16-month period, used private consultants on 125 projects for which pre-construction analyses showed it would be cheaper to use state workers. The reason, according to the report, was WisDOT did not have enough engineering staff members to do the work.

The report prompted the Joint Committee on Audit to extensively examine WisDOT’s consultant use. It also led state Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, to introduce a bill that would, among other regulations, require state agencies only choose a consultant over in-house workers if an analysis shows the agency would save money as a result.

Transportation officials argue the pre-construction analyses at the heart of the report are incomplete.

“These analyses look only at what consultant staff would cost to complete that specific project and what state staff would cost to complete that specific project,” Chris Klein, executive assistant to WisDOT Secretary Frank Busalacchi, told the audit committee Wednesday. “It assumes at the completion of the project there are no additional commitments to either the state staff or consultant staff.”

Tom Walker, government affairs director for the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, said the analyses should not apply to WisDOT. He said the decision to use consultants or in-house staff members should be based on the skill sets of available engineers.

“The department should be able to look and say, ‘Who is available in my workshop to do this effectively?’” Walker said. “‘Should I use one of my precious resources, or should I outsource this and save my resources for a different project?”

Compounding the problem for WisDOT, Walker said, is it has lost many staff members and their skill sets over the years. According to a WTBA report distributed at Wednesday’s audit committee hearing, state budget cuts forced WisDOT to reduce its work force by 13.1 percent from 2002 to 2007.

“The Legislature made two big mistakes,” Walker said. “They believed they could reduce all this to numerics, and they believed they can reduce government spending by reducing staff.

“The more talent you have in any organization, the more you get efficiency. That’s where your savings come in.”

But lawmakers have only the pre-construction analyses to use as points of comparison. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, and Joint Committee on Audit co-chairwoman, said she’s willing to listen to ideas for improving efficiency.

But lawmakers need numbers to justify spending increases for WisDOT and other agencies in future budgets.

“We need data that shows us what we would save if we increased positions,” Vinehout said. “We need that blueprint. There are still a lot of questions that need to be revisited.”

Walker said lawmakers should not expect numbers explain skill sets.

“It’s not a data question,” he said. “If you’re looking into a whole variety of skills and trying to determine if you’re better off using your own staff or outsourcing, you can’t reduce that into a formula.”

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