In a 6-1 vote on Monday (Feb. 28), the Cottage Grove City Council voted to approve two Engineer of Record contracts with engineering firms Branch Engineering and West Yost at the recommendation of city staff, effectively changing the city’s approach to handling its engineering needs.
“The projects Cottage Grove is undertaking are becoming more complicated and require several different areas of engineering experts to design projects such as, civil, structural, surveyor, wetlands, geotechnical, etc.,” said Public Works and Development Director Faye Stewart to the council on Monday. “We often find we need to go out to bid for services or projects because specific expertise is required. It will save time, money, and be more efficient if Cottage Grove contracts engineering services to firms that have the broad expertise on staff.”
The change in strategy came about following a recent reduction in engineering staff.
On Dec. 23, 2021, City Engineer Ron Bradsby retired, leaving Cottage Grove’s engineering department with just one full-time staff person and one part-time.
The adopted City Engineering budget for 2021-22 is $388,220, which is meant for three full-time employees and operational expenses.
With one full-time and one part-time employee at 16 hours per week in the department since Bradsby’s departure, only about half that budget is being used.
“The current staffing level is causing delays in project designs, application reviews, approvals and project management,” stated Stewart to the council. “The difficulty in filling vacant positions still remains a reality.”
An ad for the Cottage Grove city engineer job opening was posted on several platforms. Only two applicants applied, one withdrawing one week after the job posting closed, said Stewart.
He explained that, over the past five years, there have been five postings for open positions in the city’s Engineering Department. Two the postings closed with no applicants, one with one applicant, and two postings with three applicants with no experience or educational training in engineering.
Such responses show that the demand for individuals in the engineering profession far exceed the amount of available applicants, Stewart said.
In researching how other similar-sized cities met their engineering needs, he reported that in Lane County all cities except Eugene and Springfield have contracts with private engineering firms to provide city engineering services.
The cities with contracted services spend $15,000 to $25,000 per year for day-to-day services such as application reviews for both building and planning applications. They also support the city staff with advice when making repairs or improvements to city infrastructure.
Additional engineering services for projects for Cottage Grove are already budgeted in both the city’s capital improvement and reserve funds.
In pursuing the contracting option, Stewart consulted with legal counsel and a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a City Engineer of Record was recently processed, from which two responses were received: one from West Yost and a second from Branch Engineering, engineering firms which the city has contracted with many times before.
The firms provided a complete list of engineering services including water, wastewater, storm water, structural, surveying, geotechnical, and specialty (mapping, modeling, project management, contract administration, bidding and specifications, flood plain and flood way permitting, wetland permitting, NEPA documentation, DEQ permitting, water rights, development review services, and transportation services).
Stewart and former City Engineer Bradsby both interviewed the firms to learn about process, review times for applications, availability, how they work with other cities, billing rates and what support would be needed from Cottage Grove to perform their work.
West Yost’s primary specialty is in water and wastewater services and the firm has put together a team of seven additional sub-consultants to offer a complete line of engineering services to Cottage Grove. Most of the sub-consultants are located around the state, noted Stewart.
West Yost, based in Eugene, is also currently City Engineer of Record for Sweet Home and has worked on Cottage Grove projects for both the water and sewer treatment plants.
Branch Engineering, based in Springfield, is currently the City Engineer of Record for Coburg, Veneta and Harrisburg. It has designed street, water, sewer, and storm water improvements throughout Cottage Grove, also performing traffic studies, surveying, and other special services.
Both firms’ billing rates are similar, though Branch is less overall, said Stewart.
He added that a benefit of contracting with the firms is that work can be directly awarded to the firms under contract, instead of having spent time sending out RFPs for specific services.
Under the recommendation, Branch Engineering would be used for everyday engineering needs and West Yost would be used for water and wastewater treatment needs and projects they have already designed, such as the effluent re-use pond and irrigation system. West Yost would also be used if needs for service exceed Branch Engineering’s capacity.
The city’s current full-time engineer would focus mostly on project administration and less on engineering design work.
In discussion with the council, Councilor Chalice Savage asked Stewart if Cottage Grove could expect the $15,000 to $25,000 a year to tap into both engineering firms’ services. Stewart clarified that those numbers applied to day-to-day items.
“Projects that are specific, as we move forward, they will be billed directly to the street, water storm and sewer [funds] just as they are today,” he said. “So, there will be additional engineering services provided at additional costs that will be very similar to what we are paying today for specified projects.”
Councilor Greg Ervin asked about workload and turnaround time on projects.
“If [the firms] can receive the necessary infrastructure documents that they need, they can turn around that project and in five to seven working days,” answered Stewart, “which is, at the present time, much faster than how long we’ve been turning them around because of the sheer workload downstairs with the staff.”
Most inspections such as sidewalk, water and sewer would still be handled in-house, he said, so could be handled the same day a request was made.
Councilor Jon Stinnett said he worried that it sounded like the city was dissolving its engineering department. He noted that he recalled friction with the city’s building permit process before the city moved the process in-house.
Stewart said he understood the concerns but would make sure needs would still be met.
“My goal in taking this position here is to improve service and make sure that we can serve our construction community and the needs of our citizens with the best service and timely service,” he said. “And right now, we do use a lot of outside engineering firms, so this really isn’t too far from what we’re doing at the present time.”
Councilor Ervin asked which was ideal for a city to meet the variety of engineering demands: a fully-qualified in-house staff or contracting out third-party. And, if it were possible to find the budget for in-house staff in the future, he wondered if it would be possible get out of a third-party contract.
Stewart said there was a termination clause in the three-year contract, so the city could find a new direction if it needed to. On in-house staff, he said that needs have become so diverse that getting a team skilled in all necessary areas would increase the current budget significantly, requiring as many as six engineers on the payroll.
Both Councilor Candace Solesbee and Mayor Jeff Gowing highlighted the point that the city often goes out to contract anyway and, as a money-saving option, said they agreed with Stewart’s recommendation.
The resolution passed 6-1, only Councilor Stinnett voting against.
In other council news:
Mayor Jeff Gowing issued a proclamation of support for the people of Ukraine as the country “has been subjected to unnecessary fear, pain and injury because of the unwarranted attack” by Russia.
On Feb. 24, 2022, Russian forces entered Ukraine, launching a large-scale military invasion of the neighboring country.
The proclamation states that the leadership of Russia has engaged in a direct and intentional violation of human rights and should be held responsible for the loss of human life and loss of property resulting from the invasion, adding that the attack is an “affront to the foundation of international relations”.