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In Robins, good government or cronyism?

This is a story I’ve been thinking about for a couple weeks, but just started working on seriously yesterday. I believe CBS 2 is also looking into it. It’s not going to run in the paper until later, but I thought I’d float it to see what people think. A couple questions: Is the story clear, logical? Does anyone care? Assuming anyone cares about this, any key questions left unanswered by the story below? I’d appreciate any input.

Much to the chagrin of Robins Mayor Ian Cullis, the City Council here is expected on Monday to award a city engineering contract through July 2010 to Snyder & Associates.

The Cedar Rapids engineering firm has served as Robins’ appointed city engineer for 18 years, and this will be the first time the firm works under a contract.

Cullis promises to veto Monday’s resolution, because he wanted the contract to go out for bid. The council will almost certainly override his veto.

Most cities in Iowa aren’t large enough to pay a full-time city engineer. They pay a private firm to handle the job, and if the firm is large enough, it often ends up getting the contracts to design and oversee major road, bridge and sewer projects.

This arrangement is appealing in Robins and other towns because, as long as the city trusts the private firm, it’s an efficient way to do business.

But Cullis, and former Mayor Joel Miller before him, have argued the city should be more careful. Because Snyder is Robins’ acting city engineer, the process by which it awards contracts should be more open, Cullis said.

“When you have the same company writing the scope of work, bidding on the work, always winning the contract, always telling you how much it’s going to cost, then you never understand what fair value is,” Cullis said.

While other small towns operate the same way, Robins (population 2,700) is unique because of the amount of work — and money — at stake.

The city’s population has tripled since 1990. More than 900 people have moved there since 2000, according to U.S. Census estimates.
With all that growth comes lots of projects that require engineering services.

In the past four years, Robins has paid Snyder $1.1 million, an average of $283,000 per year.

The city expects this summer to build a wider bridge on Main Street and rebuild the intersection of County Home Road and North Center Point Road. More residential developments and a sewer project are also on the horizon.

“There is a lot of money involved,” said Vince Bading, Robins’ public works and building official, one of two full-time employees of the city.

Bading argues, however, that Snyder is familiar with Robins, the council trusts the firm, the fees are competitive, and the council has repeatedly ensured the city is not getting bilked.

“If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” Bading said.

Darin Ligtenberg, a Snyder engineer and Robins resident, has worked as the city’s engineer for 14 years.

“It’s been a long relationship, there’s no doubt about it,” Ligtenberg said.

He said engineering services often are not put out for bid. Cities and government agencies — the City of Cedar Rapids and the Iowa Department of Transportation, for instance — choose firms based on qualifications, not bids, he said.

If Snyder was a smaller firm, Ligtenberg might take statements of qualifications from other firms and award contracts based on those. But Ligtenberg’s firm is large enough that projects like the bridge and the intersection can be handled by Snyder engineers.

So let me get this straight, Cullis argues, Ligtenberg awards the work to his company, his company does the work, he oversees his company doing the work and his company submits bills for both its work on the project and Ligtenberg’s oversight of it?

“I want there to be a system of checks and balances,” he said. “That shouldn’t be offensive to anyone, especially when we’re dealing with public money.”

Cullis is alone among city officials.

The Robins city council voted 5-0 in November on a motion to award the contract to Snyder, without going out for bid. Motions can’t be vetoed, so in order to allow for Cullis’s veto, which will probably be overridden, the council will vote on an identical resolution Monday.

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5 Responses

  1. Martha Not-Stewart says:

    The situation seems a little too cozy.

  2. Gary Ellis says:

    This quote contains the critical point, “Bading argues, however, that Snyder is familiar with Robins, the council trusts the firm, the fees are competitive, and the council has repeatedly ensured the city is not getting bilked.” I didn’t see anything in the article to suggest that the work was inadequate or that the fees are non-competitive.

    Another point to consider is the cost and risks associated with the bidding process. It costs money to develop, send out and review bids. Low bids are not always the best choice either. If a contractor cannot deliver at the price bid while still making a profit may cost more by defaulting or not finishing the job.

  3. stan herr says:

    All public business should transparent, especially when it come to monies being spent, our tax money. Since I live hear and have a vested interest, and pay taxes, I would like to see 3 competitive bids for all work to be done. Quass Road was disturbing on how it was handeled by the engineeers and they seldom can give a detailed explaniton of the projects being done in Robins. I have been to several meetings and have never been impressed with any of their presentatioins.

    Don’t take the easy way out, do the right thing and honor the Mayors Veto.


  4. Seth Moomey says:

    One thing the could add to the article is a comparative view of the prices charged to the city of Robins vs the prices charged by the same firm for similar work in other areas.. or the prices charged by other companies for similar work in this area.

    If indeed Robins has ‘repeatedly ensured the city is not getting bilked’ they should be able to show the public some figures that illustrate this, right?

  5. Greg says:

    I deal with and hire engineering firms all the time. It’s a fine line between specific experience and ensuring a fair price for the tax payers. Often, a long-term relationship with an engineering firm will develop an expertise that puts them ahead of other potential bidders and Robins would have to pay for an outside firm’s “learning curve” to get up to speed with the incumbent firm. On the other hand, some “check-bids” are always wise to ensure Robins is getting not only the best value for the dollar, but more importantly, the best engineering available.
    Robins has a right to request an “RFP” – Request for Proposal, rather than a bid process. The bid process requires them to choose the lowest responsible bidder by Iowa law. An RFP gives the City the option to choose price, qualifications, relationships, etc. and choose the best proposal available. The problem of going with the same firm for 18 years is one gets a myopic view of the engineering available. Also, many other responsible firms simply won’t bid on work becuase it’s a waste of their time, which is money, so why try?

    I have seen this before with small towns with explosive growth, often, the one time po-dunk town that nobody cared about but the po-dunk engineering firms outs grows services and expertise of that long-term relationship that the small time engineering firm can provide.

    I think the Mayor is right on this one, for a town like Robins, you outta’ see what else is out there? If you grew up thinking vanilla ice cream was the best because that’ all that you ever tried, wait until you get some chocolate drizzled on that ice cream!

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