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Palo Alto turns down sharing interim engineer

By Staff | Apr 1, 2014

GRAETTINGER – With Emmet County pinning a lot of its hopes for an interim engineering sharing agreement with the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors, those hopes were dashed when Palo Alto declined to pursue any such agreement Tuesday.

Palo Alto county engineer Joel Fantz said Palo Alto would be too bogged down for the next two construction seasons for him to share his duties with Emmet County. However, Fantz did hold out hopes for a long-term sharing agreement 18 months to two years down the road.

That’s not much help though to Emmet County, which needs a county P.E. to sign off on the Iowa Department of Transportation secondary road five-year construction program and the fiscal 2015 secondary road budget documents by April 15.

Emmet County Board of Supervisors chair Alan Madden prefaced Tuesday’s meeting at the River Valley Telephone Cooperative board room with a background of the situation.

Madden said he and supervisor Tim Schumacher had visited with Palo Alto supervisor Linus Solberg about sharing an engineer with the only condition that they wanted to get both boards together Tuesday to have the duties of an interim engineer fulfilled.

“We have to be totally transparent,” said Madden, adding that Iowa Code limits Emmet County to dealing with adjacent counties – Clay would be excepted – leaving Dickinson, Palo Alto and Kossuth as the only options.

Madden said Kossuth County had been approached by both Winnebago and Emmet counties and had indicated it was not interested. Dickinson County had given the proposal some thought, and gave a fairly detailed explanation why it was not interested at this time.

“We’re not your third choice?” joked Palo Alto Board of Supervisors chair Ed Noonan.

Madden said Emmet County’s first county in mind was Palo Alto. He added that Nicole Fox, secondary roads engineer with the Iowa DOT Office of Local Systems in Ames, had frowned upon hiring an independent contractor.

“She (Fox) considers that to be the last option,” said Madden, adding that an outside engineering firm could only be used on an interim basis and that the designee must be a principal of the business.

“I consider it kind of a last alternative too,” said Madden.

Madden said interim sharing could possibly lead to a long-term arrangement that could save both counties money. He said an interim arrangement could give a chance to test the waters, with provisions for a sunset.

He cited Emmet County’s declining population and stagnant tax base as motivation to share an engineer with another county, adding that it was not insurmountable that one engineer couldn’t handle both counties. He said the first step, though, was filling an interim position.

Noonan asked how the two counties compared, and after Fantz and Emmet County assistant to the engineer Dan Burton offered some numbers, it appeared the counties were roughly equivalent. Fantz said the counties should look at synergies. “What are things we could do differently or better,” he asked.

Noonan then asked how the counties were different.

“We’ve primarily been an asphalt county,” said Burton, noting that the county’s few remaining miles of concrete paving date to 1973.

Fantz observed that Emmet County’s road tax had remained flat – something that could mean trouble in the future.

“You’re going to start seeing some real needs,” said Fantz.

Madden said he also would have guessed that funding had remained flat for Emmet.

And when Fantz said concrete now cost substantially less than asphalt, Madden said when some of the roads in Emmet break up that they could just as well be crushed up for gravel.

Madden said he also did not favor bonding for roads.

“It’s not something I look forward to,” said Madden. “The future is not bright for asphalt roads.”

Along with Madden, Emmet County supervisors Tim Schumacher and Ron Smith both favored looking at an interim engineer.

Supervisor Jon Martyr warned that the county’s paperwork for this season’s road projects was due to the state by April 15.

“It’s my feeling that our board’s put itself in a corner,” Martyr said, regarding former engineer Roger Patocka. Martyr cited poor planning and decision-making on the part of the board.

Palo Alto supervisor Craig Merrill favored looking at the next two years. “The key to that time frame is the key to making this work,” he said.

Using Patocka’s $86,000 salary to work from – which he said might not be enough to hire a full-time engineer – Fantz estimated the two counties together would save $64,000 yearly by sharing.

“You’re not talking about a massive amount of time,” said Fantz, adding that some staff synergies could be gained. At the same time, Fantz said he didn’t know if he could continue to find cost savings for Palo Alto County if he were not as focused on the job by having to share his duties.

Fantz empathized with Emmet County, observing that Emmet County had $860,000 to $900,000 in federal money at risk right now without an engineer to sign documents.

“But my first loyalty is to Palo Alto County and my staff,” said Fantz, adding that the county was now eyeing the largest construction season it’s ever had.

“I wouldn’t recommend that (sharing) to the board right now,” said Fantz.

He also offered concern about putting his professional engineering certification at risk by not having time to adequately familiarize himself with Emmet County projects before signing off on them.

“I just don’t feel it would do Palo Alto County justice to do that in the short term,” Fantz said. “Things are going to be exceptionally tight (in Palo Alto County) in the next two to three years.”

Rick Hopper, P.E. and principal at Jacobson-Westergard, who was also at Tuesday’s meeting, said he believed the firm would have time available to handle the county engineer’s duties on an interim basis. He said Scott Brunsvold, also a P.E. and principal, had done similar work in the past.

The board is studying hiring either Hopper or Brunsvold at its Tuesday, April 8 meeting.