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City of Missoula Accused of Spending Too Much on Public Works by Not Using Private Contractors

Missoula
Photo courtesy of sea turtle/Flickr

A representative of Montana’s private sector is criticizing the way that the City of Missoula deals with public works projects.

Montana Contractors Association Executive Director Cary Hegreberg said the city of Missoula is paying city employees to do jobs that can be done at lower cost by private contractors. One of the flaws with having the city do the work, Hegreberg explained, is that when the city makes mistakes like it did with the paving of the Rattlesnake to University Crossing (RUX), Missoulians are forced to pick up the added costs.

“A private contractor is bonded to assure the taxpayers get what they pay for,” Hegreberg said. “Had a private contractor done that job improperly or substandard, the contractor would have torn it out at their own expense and done it over again. As it stands, the city had to pay for it twice.”

The Montana Contractors Association has written Mayor John Engen and the Missoula City Council multiple times to see if they can produce an analysis of the costs, but Hegreberg said there have been no numbers provided.

“We have specifically asked the city to provide us with an analysis that would document their decision, and we have yet to see any numbers whatsoever,” Hegreberg said. “We don’t believe the city has done any formal calculations as to what their actual costs of doing construction really are.”

The Montana Contractors Association has also asked to be able to appear before the Missoula City Council, but has so far been denied.

Hegreberg points to recent Missoula bids to buy a $250,000 asphalt paver as evidence that the city is continuing to ignore the costs of these endeavors.

Below is a transcription of the most recent letter sent to Mayor Engen and the city council by Hegreberg. It was sent October 22.

Dear City of Missoula officials,

On behalf of the Board of Directors of the Montana Contractors’ Association, I am respectfully requesting that you terminate the advertisement for bids the City has published for a new asphalt paving machine. We specifically request that you not award a contract for this purchase until such time as you respond to the letter we sent you on June 28, 2013.

We believe the City of Missoula has an obligation to taxpayers, and to local businesses that provide construction services, to fully detail and justify the expense of purchasing, operating, and maintaining construction equipment when qualified local construction firms are ready, willing, and able to compete for the City’s paving projects. After the recent debacle this summer in which City crews failed to meet specifications in paving the RUX project and it had to he torn out and redone, it would seem a reassessment is imperative.

Instead of responding to our June 28 letter, or even acknowledging our concerns, the City is plowing ahead with blinders on, as if the RUX project had never showcased the City’s waste of tax dollars, and as if private construction firms in the Missoula community were totally irrelevant. When amortized into the purchase price and maintenance costs, the low volume of material run through City paving machines results in a dramatically higher cost per ton of asphalt than for a commercial firm.

The efficiencies alone do not warrant the City purchasing a new paver costing in excess of a quarter million dollars. not to mention the lack of quality control assurances. Please refrain from purchasing new or replacement construction equipment until you have addressed the concerns outlined in our June 28 letter. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Cary Hegreberg

This was Engen’s response on November 6:

We wanted to take this opportunity to formally respond to your letter dated June 28, 2013. In your letter you express frustration that the City of Missoula invests in expensive construction equipment and undertakes public works projects that you believe should be awarded to private sector construction firms.

The City has limited resources and is focused on year-round utilization of public works crews and equipment to provide maximum benefit to city taxpayers. Our taxpayers are best served by having public works crews and equipment utilized for snow removal in winter months and street repair and maintenance when the weather permits.

The City does have a paver for road maintenance but no major equipment used exclusively for construction projects. Public works crews are mostly limited to preparation and patching work in conjunction with privately-contracted curb and sidewalk improvements. When City crews are involved in road, trail and sidewalk projects it’s to save the time and additional cost involved in the formal design-bid-build process, but only when projects are of a scope and complexity that make the project feasible for the City to manage and construct.

This community wants to see improvements on the ground so time and project budget constraints are primary considerations in determining project scope and implementation process. The issues with the recent RUX trail paving project highlight the level of coordination and oversight needed when private contractors and public works crews are used on the same project. For major construction projects, the City of Missoula does go through the formal process of design. bid and contract award with construction by private contractors. The City has contracted over S40 million in infrastructure projects in the past 10 years and done an estimated S I million worth of paving in conjunction with those projects, demonstrating our commitment to use private design, engineering and construction professionals and firms for public projects.

In closing, we appreciate your input on our operations but the City must always reserve the right to utilize its limited resources in the most efficient way.

As mayor, I’ve enjoyed a great working relationship with contractors and developers, including at least one member of your board of directors. My hope is that relationship continues.

Sincerely,

John Engen

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