FORT WAYNE — For more than a decade, the prevailing wisdom was that for most projects private companies could work faster, better and – perhaps most importantly – cheaper than government workers.
Government workforces have been trimmed dramatically at every level, and those employees were replaced with private contractors in every sector from the U.S. military to local cities and towns.
But the idea that was once taken for granted is now being shown to not always be true.
The city of Fort Wayne, for example, had long used outside engineering firms to supplement its design staff. But in recent years, City Utilities has grown its staff of engineers by 33 percent and added more interns. And the amount of work it outsources has dropped from about 16 percent to slightly more than 10 percent – even as the amount of work the department does has doubled.
“We’ve found that on average, $1 million worth of work we do in-house would have cost approximately $2 million had we gone outside,” Fort Wayne City Utilities Director Kumar Menon said.
Much of the reason is because the kind of work the city is doing has changed dramatically. Before 2008, most of the construction City Utilities oversaw was run-of-the-mill water and sewer projects. Therefore, anything unique required hiring an outside firm because the city didn’t have specialized experts on staff, and it didn’t make sense to pay employees year-round for work that is rarely needed.
But when city officials signed a consent decree with the federal government agreeing to do $240 million worth of projects over 18 years to reduce the amount of sewage being dumped into the rivers, that all changed. Suddenly, design work that was seldom needed became a staple of the department.
“For these projects that have five to 10 years of life, it makes sense to bring it in-house,” Menon said. That has led to increasing the staff from 30 engineers to 40.
Consultants are still used, but their role has changed, officials said.
Now, they’re used for the really big, really complex projects and situations where really specialized expertise is needed, such as the biological process engineering needed for the wastewater treatment plant expansion.
“We have people with chemistry degrees and biology degrees, but we didn’t have an expert,” said Matt Wirtz, deputy director of engineering for City Utilities. “What really does the work at the wastewater plant is bugs (bacteria), and when we guarantee to the EPA that this is going to work, we need to make sure we’re right.”
In addition, city officials are looking at outside firms as partners, not hired guns.
“When we hire a firm, part of the requirements is that they teach our staff,” Menon said. “We encourage them to open their own training programs to our employees, and our people have been able to take advantage of a lot of things they would not have had an opportunity to learn otherwise. We’re leveraging the resources these firms have.”
The relationship between the city and the firms it hires has become symbiotic, Menon said, where each benefits from the other.
“Yes, most of the stuff that we do over and over again, we’re doing in-house,” Menon said. “But even on complex ones, our guys are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them, learning from them.”
The move to do more in-house comes at a fortuitous time, too: Politically, elected officials have been questioning – and sometimes openly criticizing – the number of consultants hired by the city.
On Aug. 28, City Council President Tom Smith, R-1st, asked the administration to produce a list of every consultant hired by the city so officials can get an idea of how much is being spent on outside firms.
He said he wants the report by March, but ironically said he did not want the city to include consultants hired by City Utilities as he expected the task would be overwhelming.
There are other benefits to doing more work in-house, officials said. With up to seven interns at a time, and more opportunities for those interns to join the staff after graduation, the city is building strong relationships with area universities, which not only helps those programs and creates jobs, but helps keep more college graduates in the area, whether they work for the city or an outside firm hired by the city.
“A lot of what we do is not sexy, but this is what a community is built on,” Menon said.