October 5, 2020

Fact Check:  The Role of the City Engineer

With the Great Bellaire Sidewalks Debate raging once again ahead of the upcoming resident-petitioned charter election, a popular misconception previously put to bed has now resurfaced.  I’ve been hearing from a handful of residents expressing concern at what they’ve read on social media, about the role of the City Engineer.  Specifically, that his findings and advice cannot be trusted because of a supposed conflict of interest.  The problem with that claim is that it’s grounded on falsehood.  So let’s clear this up once and for all:

The City Engineer and his firm are not allowed to bid on, and do not provide engineering or other associated services to the City—other than as City Engineer.

Due to our size (and the size of our payroll), it's more efficient for us to outsource the City Engineer function than to employ one directly.  We contract annually for a baseline level of services, at a flat fee of $75,000.  That covers the routine, day-to-day responsibilities of the City Engineer, which would include ongoing consultation on engineering issues as they arise, development and implementation of our capital improvement and infrastructure programs, and residential construction plan review.

The City Engineer also has a role—as City Engineer—in individual city projects, representing the City's interests through oversight of outside engineering design and in construction management.  Also in his role as contract City Engineer, essentially as an extension of the city staff, he performs operational civil engineering on more routine projects, such as designing straightforward water and wastewater improvements.  All of that work is beyond the scope of the baseline annual contract, because it can vary quite a bit from year to year depending on how many projects we've got going on.  Therefore, on a project basis we expand the scope as needed, but still for services within the role of the City Engineer.

If we were to employ a City Engineer directly rather than as a contractor, that individual would still be serving in all the same capacities.  The arrangement is quite like what we have with our City Attorney.  It's far more cost effective to outsource that function, and we get a baseline level of services for a flat fee.  But whenever we have less routine needs, like for litigation or bond counsel services, those are outside the scope of the flat-fee contract.

Significantly, it wasn't all that long ago the lines weren't quite so clear.  The City Engineer has served in that capacity through his current firm since 2012.  Prior to that he performed the function with his previous firm, but not formalized in the way it is today, and that previous firm was allowed to bid on city projects.  Our former City Manager recognized that potential conflict of interest and put a stop to it shortly after he got here in 2014.

It's also worth noting that the City Engineer does not select projects.  Rather, there are established processes and selection criteria in place to evaluate our infrastructure needs that drive this decision making.  For example, our ranking of streets for reconstruction with drainage improvements is based on a structural and drainage system assessment of every block throughout the City.  That data is blended with community, City Council and staff input, and more recently that of the Flood Hazard Mitigation Task Force, in developing those rankings.

So while the City undoubtedly benefits from his decades of institutional knowledge and experience specific to Bellaire, the City Engineer is not allowed to select, bid on and award himself contracts.  Because that would be a conflict of interest.