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Willmar committee seeks policy for changes to projects

WILLMAR — Discussion about an engineer’s street project design error could lead to a policy in which Willmar City Council members are told when changes are made in city improvement projects.

Bollig Inc. of Willmar was hired by the council last year to provide engineering and surveying services for 2013 improvement projects. The services had been provided by a city technician-surveyor who resigned in July last year.

The design error was caught by a city inspector who found that the elevation of a portion of curbing poured in early August for the Kandiyohi Avenue Southwest reconstruction project between 12th Street and 13th Street was too high. The Kandiyohi Avenue work is part of this year’s improvement projects.

City officials said work was halted while Bollig Inc. was contacted to review the problem. Officials said the curb was incorrectly poured. Officials initially felt the curb should be torn out, but ultimately settled for a solution designed by Bollig Inc. that would not negatively impact drainage.

The roughly $10,000 cost, which included additional catch basins, was paid by the Bollig firm, according to officials.

“Somehow their final design ended up with an elevation that is higher than the city desired,’’ said Bruce Peterson, planning and development director and also interim public works director. “We had two major concerns: Will the street function properly as a street and will the adjacent property drain appropriately? We believe that his solution does make both of those things happen.’’

City Administrator Charlene Stevens said the city ultimately ended up accepting the changes.

“The engineer has assured us that there is not a negative impact on the drainage, and we are relying on the engineer’s professional judgment,’’ she said.

Stevens said elevations farther down Kandiyohi Avenue were also checked and corrections were made before the curbing was poured. Bollig Inc. also made some changes to designs on Sixth Street Southwest prior to work being completed, said Stevens.

“They took a different look at that, made some changes, and the only time we don’t find that, quite frankly, is when the design work is done in-house because then we don’t have to deal with a third party,’’ said Stevens.

“That’s not to say we don’t make any mistakes in-house. That can occur, too, even when the city does the design in-house. When you get out in the field, it may not be exactly as you found it to be,’’ she said.

Although officials typically bring project change orders to the City Council for approval if a change significantly changes the scope or cost of a project, changes to the Kandiyohi Avenue project were not brought to the council’s attention because the engineering firm paid for the change and it did not affect the overall cost of the project.

“Our field people are out there making changes almost on a daily basis,’’ said Peterson. “They’ll find unknowns when they get a street opened up, whether it’s a sewer grade or they might locate a different utility that hadn’t been labeled on a plan and you just have to make these changes in the field and you can’t hold up the process. You can’t tell a contractor you just wait until we decide what we’re going to do. You have to make those calls in the field and the project has to move forward.’’

The process of approving changes in the field was discussed Tuesday afternoon by the Public Works/Safety Committee at the request of chairman Ron Christianson, who said changes should have been brought to the council’s attention.

Councilman Christianson said the city as owner of the streets, curb and gutter needs to be notified if something major or drastic happens. He said two people asked him what happened. He was concerned that taxpayers know about it, and that he wanted to know, especially if it’s in his ward.

“If you’re changing the elevation, you’re changing the contract. Even though there’s not a monetary change, the owner needs to be aware of it,’’ he said.

Stevens said the change was treated much like the city would treat any other error or problem in the field if something had been laid incorrectly. She said changes like that would not typically be brought to the council because there isn’t a change in the cost to the city.

Christianson said that since staff asked City Attorney Robert Scott about what should be done, “that tells me that it’s a major change, too, and we should be made aware of it.’’

Stevens said the city does that with other projects and wanted to assure the city’s rights were preserved.

“If we had a contractor paying for something that we didn’t feel was ours to pay for, that we would protect our rights. That’s typical work with the city attorney,’’ Stevens said.

Christianson said he received several emails from Scott after asking questions, and he quoted Scott from an email: “It’s my opinion that the city has reserved all its contract rights on that project and has not incurred liability by accepting the engineer’s proposed fix.’’

Councilman Steve Ahmann said council members’ role is not to micromanage, but he suggested a policy be written if major changes are made.

Stevens said staff can prepare some recommendations.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150