PEF to legislators: State DOT engineers, inspectors cost less, protect public interests
Story and photo by SHERRY HALBROOK
PEF Executive Board member Paul Gendron and member Karen Patterson presented the union’s testimony in February on transportation funding and related issues in the governor’s 2017-18 Executive Budget proposal. Gendron is PEF chair of the Joint Labor-Management Committee for the state Department of Transportation and Patterson is the PEF vice chair.
In their comments at the joint Senate and Assembly budget hearing, Gendron and Patterson focused on PEF’s insights and concerns related to funding, staffing, design-build, public-private partnerships and the need for cost-benefit analysis.
They said PEF is pleased DOT funding would be $750 million greater than last year, and federal funding may increase as much as $1 trillion nationwide over the coming decade, all aimed at catching up on the maintenance and improvement of highways, bridges, public transportation and related infrastructure.
The influx of additional money “will also require additional administration by experienced state employees,” PEF testified. The budget calls for adding 86 positions to the design and construction program, but that is only a small start toward replacing hundreds of engineering staff that have been lost in the last decade. The union noted the 2017-18 proposal would leave the department nearly 1,200 positions below the level that was proposed by the governor for 2007-08.
“In construction inspection, alone, more than one-third of in-house jobs have been lost,” PEF said. That’s costing taxpayers needlessly, because hiring consultants to do the inspections can run more than 30 percent more costly.
“Many of these consultant engineering service contracts originated decades ago and are simply renewed as needed. So, for all intents and purposes, DOT is paying exorbitant consultant costs for de facto permanent employees. As long-term stewards of public money, these facts should trouble us all greatly,” the PEF members said.
“Multiple studies have shown in-house, experienced DOT employees produce better projects for lower cost,” they told the legislators. That is why PEF insists DOT should always check first to see whether it can stretch taxpayers’ dollars further by doing work in-house before it rushes to solicit proposals from private contractors.
Unfortunately, those studies have been ignored, as the state deepens its reliance on private contractors, and puts more and more projects into contractors’ hands to design, build and inspect their work.
“Both design-build and public-private partnerships (P3s) have a checkered history in our country,” the PEF members testified. Allowing private architects, engineers and builders to hire and pay the inspectors who will check their work “results in the loss of checks and balances (and) … puts the public at risk, bypassing competitive bidding laws, labor protection and other safeguards that ensure transparency, fairness and impartial oversight.”
The contract procurement process and the additional administrative oversight that design-build requires, adds to the cost, as does the increased risk to the design-build contractor, the PEF members said.
It is important for DOT employees to inspect these projects to ensure the proper quality and safety of construction for the construction workers and for the public, PEF stressed.
PEF also shared concerns about public-private partnerships that allow private companies to own and operate public highways, bridges, tunnels, and other infrastructure for a profit. If the property does not generate the anticipated profit, the taxpayers may be obliged to pay for the shortfall. Meanwhile, the state loses control over policy that can affect the public.
“When for-profit investors take over public service facilities,” PEF testified, “it must be remembered that every dollar that is put into a private corporation’s balance sheet is a dollar that cannot be spent on additional public safety or service.”
THeCOMMUNICATOR – March 2017 Contents – PDF