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Hernando is urged to hire an in-house engineer, not contract with private firm

BROOKSVILLE — As Hernando prepares to fill the job of county engineer, a top official is urging the county to hire an in-house engineer rather than contract with a private firm.

Interim public works director Susan Goebel said Friday her concerns about using private companies include both cost and potential conflicts of interest.

Hernando has been without a county engineer since Charles Mixson was fired in January; his assistant quit just days later. Several weeks ago, the county lost its other civil engineer, Chris Wert, who resigned.

Last month, the County Commission asked county officials to compare the pros and cons of privatizing the engineering function before settling on how to fill the position.

On Tuesday, Goebel will ask county commissioners to approve an engineering company on the rotating list of approved firms to help temporarily. And she will explain to commissioners why she believes the county would be better served in the long run by hiring its own engineer.

She also clarified what she termed "just misinformation'' from local news sources about the status of county projects based on the lack of an engineer. Goebel, as a mechanical engineer, cannot sign and seal engineering plans for roadways, among other projects.

"We are not dead in the water,'' she said, noting that projects continue to move forward. In fact, Goebel said, she is meeting with state Department of Transportation officials on Monday to address their concerns about various projects.

Goebel on Tuesday will ask to use HDR Engineering Inc. to provide engineering services while the county seeks an engineer. The cost for using HDR would not exceed $72,312, and the arrangement would last for no longer than 90 days.

Goebel said that when she examined using a private firm for the long term, the price was much higher than what the county would pay for an in-house engineer.

The county is using a salary figure of $86,795 as the proposed cost of a new in-house county engineer.

The cost of an outside engineer, based on the going rate of $155 per hour in current county contracts, would run the county $307,520.

"It would cost us three times as much'' to privatize engineering, Goebel said.

Salary aside, projects engineered in-house are also eligible for various funding opportunities. This year, the county received $13 million from these kinds of programs for engineering and construction, Goebel notes in a memo to County Administrator David Hamilton.

An in-house engineer also knows the county staffers, their skills, county resources, county features and infrastructure, all assets in more efficient operations, she noted.

In addition, the in-house engineer knows specifics of ongoing projects and how they fit into the projects of other counties, the city, the state, federal and private projects.

"In certain circumstances, general engineering practices may not fit the county's need,'' Goebel wrote. "A staff county engineer would be familiar with the county's interests and engineering practices and best be able to establish county policies and standards with reduced questions of loyalty or conflict of interest.''

Having a private engineer also serve as the county engineer creates other logistical problems, Goebel noted.

For example, HDR is the same firm recently hired to do the engineering study of the jail. Special care must be taken so that the firm doesn't do both private work on the jail and public oversight for the county.

The same is true of another company on the county's rotating engineering list, Tampa Bay Engineering, which is also the engineer on the Sunshine Grove Road improvement project.

Those complications go away with an in-house engineer, she said.

A staff engineer is also available at all hours for meetings and emergencies, she noted in her memo.

She concluded, "Upon a thorough evaluation, it was revealed that a staff/in-house position provides for an engineer with the familiarity, versatility, accountability, loyalty and availability, timeliness that the county demands, which a consultant engineer cannot provide.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando is urged to hire an in-house engineer, not contract with private firm 09/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 10, 2010 8:03pm]
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