The City of Port Alberni’s practice of hiring specialized consultants for projects came under criticism during the recent budget process.
But it is a way to reduce risk inherent to complicated projects, city manager Ken Watson said in defending the number of consultants the city hires.
That’s the reason the city is spending $633,500 of its proposed $753,500 2015 consulting budget on engineering department work.
“My example, and don’t think I’m trying to elevate engineers to the same level as doctors, is you go to your GP and you tell him the symptoms. He says ‘okay, I’m sending you to a specialist to have a look at you.’ Is he a bad doctor? No, he’s a good doctor because he knows he’s not the guy to decide what the course of treatment should be.”
The role of a GP among doctors is the same role that city engineer Guy Cicon plays in the engineering field.
“He’s the GP of engineering,” said Watson, also a licensed engineer (who actually preceded Cicon as Port Alberni’s city engineer).
Cicon, Watson added, is also largely in a directorial and administrative role.
“He’s largely concerned with administration and supervision rather than technical stuff,” said Watson. “[Cicon] doesn’t have that much of his day that he can sit down and design stuff.”
“Local government engineers are focusing in on several projects concurrently and that takes up a lot of their time in project management…there isn’t time to do detailed design of a complicated project,” he said. “Engineering is a very large field of study and the expertise required for engineering a city isn’t held within one staff person.”
According to Cicon, Port Alberni is not unique in its use of engineering consultants.
“The city of Port Alberni utilizes consultants for specialized projects like water treatment plants and sewage treatment plants and more complicated underground installation,” Cicon said. “We don’t have that expertise but neither does a city the size of Nanaimo. Nanaimo hires the same kind of consultants as we do to do the same work.”
“The engineer doesn’t have the capacity time-wise, or frankly expertise-wise to do it, so we have to go to a third party specialist engineer,” Watson said.
“That’s the reality of it in my view. That’s not easy for the public to understand.”
Projects like the Dry Creek flood mitigation plans, the new Bainbridge water treatment plant and the sewage lagoon upgrades can’t be assigned to an engineering technician.
“We can’t assign it to our engineering technicians to do, it’s far beyond their capabilities.”
Cicon, who has a Bachelor of Civil Engineering degree from Lakehead University in Ontario as well as a Masters in Business Administration from McGill University in Montreal, is licensed as a professional engineer (P.Eng).
As such, he’s governed by the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of B.C. (APEGBC).
The association governs professional engineers. In order to gain the P.Eng qualification, engineers must complete an appropriate degree and pass a licensing exam.
APEGBC’s code of ethics requires engineers to “undertake and accept responsibility for professional assignments only when qualified by training or experience.”
According to Watson, that means that “engineers are actually precluded, you get turfed out of the engineering profession if you undertake work that you are not by training or experience qualified to do. If you put your stamp on something that you’re not qualified to stamp, you’re out.”
In terms of hiring another engineer with a more specialized focus, Watson said that simply isn’t financially viable.
“The rationale behind that is that you hire special expertise when you need it and then when you don’t need it, you’re not paying them.”
Major projects take more than one engineer, Watson added.
“When you hire somebody to do the design work for Dry Creek or for the sewage treatment work or for the water treatment plant, you get a team of engineers. There’s 10 or so engineers working on this for a short period of time and you pay them for that.”
The best cost saving, Cicon said, is provided by getting the job done right in the first place.
“It’s really important to recognize that when you’re investing so much money, the best return on investment is getting the design right in the first place.”