Decorah City Council members have no complaints about the job City Engineer Lindsay Erdman is doing, but do have some questions about billing procedures and other issues.
Council member John Franzen recently suggested the Council discuss the position and whether the city should seek proposals for engineering work on certain projects. The topic was discussed for about an hour during a Council work session Monday night. Erdman Engineering has served the city for more than a half century. Erdman became city engineer in 1989 after his father, Lowell Erdman, retired.
Chad Bird said since he became city manager a year ago, he's received inquiries from "several" people on how the city bills for engineering services and defines those services. He said the purpose of the work session is to get a better understanding of how the Council would like to proceed.
"I'm not dissatisfied with the quality of service or professionalism we've received from Erdman Engineering," Franzen said.
The Council member did say it "bothers" him when he sees Erdman billing for "miscellaneous" expenses.
"I think we need to be a little more specific," Franzen said.
Erdman said he could provide more details if that would make the Council more comfortable. He said he receives many requests for information on a variety of topics that don't always fit into a particular expense category.
ed if the questions come from city hall. Erdman said they come from city hall and the public. He said he also responds to "high water events" to see how certain streets are handling heavy rainfall over a short period of time.
"It's surprising how many weird and miscellaneous questions we get," Erdman commented.
Council member Gary Rustad said he appreciates explanations for change orders Erdman has been providing over the past several months.
"It helps to have a reason and purpose ... I know a lot of those change orders have been done (by the time the Council approves them). That's the way it is," Rustad said.
Bird said that's why he introduced a procedure for the Short Street reconstruction project that allowed changes orders to be addressed "in the field" up to a certain dollar amount and then brought back to the Council for its review. Bird said he hopes that practice would continue for larger projects and that he plans to bring a similar proposal to the Council for the Claiborne Drive/State Street intersection reconstruction project scheduled to start after the school year ends.
Council member Randy Schissel said if Erdman is being directed to do work by another entity, such as the Army Corps of Engineers or Decorah's Self Supporting Municipal Improvement District (SSMID), he should run it by the Council before doing the work.
"He does a lot of work for a lot of different committees that don't always have the money to pay him and we get stuck," Bird commented.
"That's something we need to clear up - how the work direction flows," Schissel said.
Franzen said he didn't recall the Council giving Erdman the "go ahead" for a project involving signage along the Trout Run Trail.
"I apologize for jumping into that ... we could see spring coming fast and we did jump in and do that. I don't try to do that very often," Erdman said.
The engineer said the work was done after a meeting with Winneshiek County Conventions and Visitors Bureau Director Brenda Luzum, Bird and County Conservation Director Barb Schroeder. Bird explained at that time, the intergovernmental Trout Run Trail 28e committee still had some "trail oversight." However, that group, which included city and county representatives, no longer has that oversight, he said.
Franzen said he'd like to see more "formal action" approving engineering services whether from the city's street committee or the entire Council.
"I think that would be very helpful," Bird agreed.
The city manager said Erdman receives "confusing signals" when he's asked to look into something for a proposed project but hasn't been authorized to do it by the Council.
A "chain of command" needs to be followed "so we can make sure the right hand knows what the left hand is doing," Rustad commented.
"We have a great city, but you have so many different groups pulling you in 30 different directions," he told Erdman.
When groups, such as SSMID, are planning projects in the city, it's probably in the city's best interest to be "part of that conversation," Council member Rachel Vagts said.
"We want it done the way we want it done," she said.
She suggested setting a cap on miscellaneous engineering services that could be spent before receiving Council approval.
"I don't want to tie the hands of the experts who do work in the field," said Vagts, adding she appreciates all the extra things Erdman does for the city.
Council member Carolyn Corbin said she likes the quarterly budget reports the Council receives and that a similar quarterly streets and engineering report would be helpful.
Franzen suggested the city consider requesting proposals, "not on every day streets" but for "more specialized things."
Erdman commented that his firm doesn't do all the engineering work for the city, noting Mead and Hunt of Minneapolis was hired for a levee accreditation process required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Bird said the Council could consider asking for requests for proposals (RFPs) or requests for qualifications (RFQs). He said when Council members discuss having a street designed using the Complete Streets policy and design approach, they may want to know what an engineering firm's qualifications are.
Erdman said when asking for RFPs, there has to be a range of costs for services, since his role is to figure out how to solve problems. He said his firm would be "happy" to prepare proposals.
In a letter he submitted to the Council and mayor prior to Monday's work session, Erdman wrote "It is not in the best interest of the public to bid the design work, but rather to develop a work scope that allows for the appropriate design to be developed from an adequate investigation of the problem. A low bid design artificially limits the possible solutions whereas the development of a work scope with the engineer allows for setting out a reasonable process and budget to prepare a design that addresses the problem and protects the public interest."
Federal projects do not allow bidding for professional services for those reasons, he said.
Because the reconstruction of State Street and Claiborne Drive is the only "major project" planned for this year, Schissel said "it's a good time to work on how this is going to flow."
Bird said if the Council were to consider having an engineer "in house" as a department of the city, it would require a significant "outlay" of funds to pay for all the equipment, including computers and programs that would be necessary.
Rustad said the Council would not have the "answer" after one meeting.
"Erdman Engineering has served the city of Decorah very well for how many years ... and with your dad," Rustad said. "We have respect and confidence in Erdman. Having said that, we're dealing with public money and there are always checks and balances."