Three city commissioners are expressing concern about whether the process to hire city consultants is giving taxpayers the best bang for their buck.
Mayor Rob Chestnut and Commissioners Aron Cromwell and Mike Dever asked staff members to conduct more research on ways that the city could change its system of selecting a host of consultants that range from engineers to auditors.
Currently, the city uses a system that does not require interested companies to submit a price for their services up front. Instead, companies submit a list of qualifications, and a city team selects the most qualified company to present to commissioners. After the firm has been selected, a price for their services is negotiated.
“The public is very confused when you talk about this system,” said Cromwell, who is an environmental consultant by trade. “When they find out that we’re going to ask a company how much it will charge us for a project after we’ve selected them, they start laughing. That is not how it is done in their lives.”
Changing the way the city selects consultants caught the attention of a host of consulting companies. More than a half-dozen engineers and architects attended the City Commission meeting, and representatives from three different engineering and design trade groups urged commissioners to stick with the current system.
“I haven’t seen any evidence that Lawrence is paying more for design services than anywhere else in the state,” said Ron Gaches, executive director of the Kansas Society of Professional Engineers. “I think what you will find is that your system has created a highly competitive environment for design services.”
But it is a process that is different from how the private sector goes about selecting consultants, said Rob Chestnut, who serves as the chief financial officer for a local company.
“I have procured professional services for 25 years, and this (system) is completely opposite to anything I’ve done as a professional,” Chestnut said.
But the host of engineers and architects told commissioners that design work is often so project-specific that it is difficult for a company to give a meaningful price estimate until the company has detailed discussions with city leaders about the project. They said the city’s current system allows that to happen.
They said taxpayers are still protected because the city always has the option of breaking off negotiations with a company if a price can’t be agreed upon.
City commissioners were not of one mind on the subject. Commissioner Mike Amyx said he thought the current system likely serves the needs of the city well. Commissioner Lance Johnson, who owns a Lawrence engineering company, also said he thought the system worked fairly well, but was open to examining it more closely.
Dever, who also is an environmental consultant by trade, said he had mixed feelings about the issue but believed there likely were some changes that could be made.
Staff members will gather information about how Johnson County uses a system that factors in both qualifications and costs. A timeline for when commissioners will discuss the issue again wasn’t set.