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DL officials question Ulteig Engineering's business practices

What started out as a possible cost-saving effort for Detroit Lakes has turned into more of a battle, with some city officials questioning an engineering firm's business practices.

Several months ago when City Engineer Jon Pratt resigned his post at Ulteig Engineers and started a new job with Apex Engineering, the city decided to take a look at how to possibly save some money with engineering services. While Pratt is still city engineer, the city decided that maybe bidding out projects would save money instead.

The city also considered sharing an engineer with the county but City Attorney Charlie Ramstad said that after further review, that wouldn't be an option.

The city and county can cooperate on design services, but there can't be a shared engineer, according to statute, he said.

With that option out, the city is debating what to do for engineering services, but finding itself in an unwanted battle instead.

Pratt is city engineer, regardless

The city charter says that the city must appoint a city engineer -- the same practice as appointing the city attorney. Ramstad said the city has historically appointed a person, not an engineering firm.

With that said, for the last 75 years, the city engineer has been appointed from the same engineering firm -- Ulteig and before that Larson-Peterson, which Ulteig bought out.

Since Pratt is designated as the city engineer, not Ulteig, the position follows him. The city can terminate Pratt as the engineer at any time, and Pratt can resign the position at any time.

Ramstad reminded city staff and officials that Pratt is still the city engineer, regardless of where he works. He also said that the city's decision to send out a request for proposals for engineering services was optional and not required.

Copyrighted materials

With each document Ulteig prepares for the city -- or any other client -- there is a copyright that goes with it, giving the engineering firm ownership of the documents. There is also a license for the city to use those materials since they paid for the services, Ramstad explained.

Last month the city discussed being able to access those documents for future use when needed. Ramstad said he was contacted by Ulteig's attorney and told that the city would need consent to use the documents, and it would be done on a case-by-case basis.

The message to the council, he said, "if you do not designate an employee of Ulteig, they will do what they can to make the city" jump through hoops on every document.

He said it doesn't mean they will deny the city access to the documents, but they might, or they could charge the city a fee to use them.

"They assert their right that they don't have to," he said of sharing files. "They're telling us, we're going to have an argument each time."

In his opinion, he said, the city already has the right to use the documents.

"That is unethical practice as a professional," Alderman Bruce Imholte said of Ulteig's position, adding that it doesn't shed a favorable light on a firm to work with in the bidding process.

He also asked Ramstad if there is a way to have the city own rights to the documents, so they never have this situation again. Ramstad said it is possible to include that clause in the bidding process.

"I don't want to be held hostage with our documents that we already paid for," agreed Alderman GL Tucker.

He added that the city started the RFP process to save money and somehow that's gotten completely lost in this argument.

He said it's known that government in general isn't good at looking at things as long as they're working, so when a change came up with Pratt resigning from Ulteig, the city decided maybe it was time to take a look at different options.

Bidding projects

City Administrator Bob Louiseau said it's not unusual for cities to designate a city engineer and then bid out projects for engineering services.

While the bidding process would likely save the city some money, it also creates more work for those in the office who have to create the RFPs and then review the proposals to award the bid. But, Louiseau added, the process would be simplified by the fact that there are only two engineering firms in Detroit Lakes -- Ulteig and Apex.

He also said that the city already has a lot of resources -- including Steve Hanson, who has worked in utilities for the city for many years -- when it comes to plans and knowing the ins and outs of the city's street and utilities system.

For the purpose of mutual state aid projects -- like with Minnesota Department of Transportation or the railroad, for example -- the city has to have a designated engineer to work on those projects. The city engineer would also provide the five- and 10-year plans for future street projects needed in the city.

Imholte suggested revisiting the idea of an in-house engineer. The topic wasn't previously discussed in depth because it was said that the city didn't have enough work for a full-time engineer, but, Imholte said, it sounds like it might be feasible since there would be added work with the bidding process.

Mayor Matt Brenk suggested the council hold off another week or two on making any decisions. The council is holding a special planning meeting Jan. 17, and he said the council should take into consideration the new information and maybe discuss it more at the planning meeting.

Tucker said there has already been a lot of discussion on the matter and a decision needs to be made soon.