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Project manager idea has its share of critics


Nathan Gregory



The creation of a project manager position for the city of Columbus and subsequent hiring of J5 Broaddus for the position has produced mixed reaction from residents who are unaware of what a project manager does. 


On July 23, two councilmen, Bill Gavin and Charlie Box, questioned how creating the new project manager position would be benefit the city. 


Meanwhile, the future of the city engineer position filled currently by Neel-Schaffer is in limbo. Councilmen voted to request proposals for that position a month ago instead of reappointing Neel-Schaffer, but have yet to advertise for the job, nor have city officials made clear any intention to advertise. 


Kenny Morris, who has served as city engineer in Louisville for more than 20 years, said having a project manager position on the city payroll is not necessary unless there are multiple large-scale projects taking place at once. 


"Unless you have an extremely large number of projects going at one time, I don't see any point in it," Morris said. "So many of your federal-participating projects, if you've got federal funds, you've got to have an outside project engineer to start with." 


Robyn Eastman of Broaddus and Associates, which will work with J5 Broaddus in the new role, told councilmen that having an architecture or engineering firm designing and building its own project would not be cost effective because the firm would be tempted to put its own financial interests ahead of the city's. 


Morris said if a municipality using taxpayer money hires an engineering firm to oversee its projects, the firm's interest is generally in benefiting the city. 


"It might just be the terminology, but I would think you would want an engineer or engineering firm to be the project manager," he said. "If you've got a legitimate person taking care of your business, nothing is going to be more expensive than it's supposed to be. You're going to take competitive sealed bids on the job, and you're going to have prices on almost every contract. If the person who is overseeing that for the city is an honest person with the best interest of Columbus, he's going to make sure nothing is overpaid." 


JWS & Associates consulting firm owner John Smith, who also taught civil engineering courses at the University of Memphis, said it's not uncommon for a city to hire a third party for project management, particularly on capital improvement projects. 


"In Germantown (Tenn.), they do this routinely on projects," Smith said. "They'll hire a third party firm to stay with the contractor, provide construction inspectors, do the paperwork, in some cases, for pay estimates. It's not that uncommon for a city to do that, as opposed to increasing your staff to have their own construction inspectors and their own people. 


"Some cities will take requests for qualifications for engineering services and go through a review process. It depends on the way the government is structured. It can be done both ways. Most cities will have the flexibility to select whom they want to. If a project is extremely big then they often times will go for requests for qualifications and go through a formal review process and the whole bit, but not necessarily." 


Sidney Runnels, who has more than 30 years of municipal experience including a 16-year tenure as mayor of Canton and city manager for Grenada and Gautier, said he had more involvement personally with construction projects. 


"The key component to any city is to have a good engineer because so many times you need them to advise you on projects you have," Runnels said. "The grants we secured had money for a project coordinator and the grant pays for it. That's always what we've had as far as a project coordinator. The city doesn't have to front any money I'm not familiar with anybody hiring a project manager. I would like to know exactly in more detail from the people that hired him what he would be doing." 


The city approved a one-year contract with J5 Broaddus which will pay the firm $90,000 plus six percent of the costs of any project it oversees and incidentals, which includes travel, hotel and meals for Broaddus and Associates personnel. 


For $90,000, the credentials of the company will be what determine if the city is taking a step in the right direction, Runnels said.  


"At this time in our country, a lot of these grants are being eliminated, and I think more and more are going to be eliminated," he said. "I would have a very difficult time going to a council that I've worked with in the past and ask them for $90,000 for a project manager, and that's as honest as I can be in my experience." 


Smith said it all goes back to how much capability the city has.  


"What they're doing in many cases is, instead of hiring staff to do that, they are putting more money into contract services. There's nothing wrong with that from a city standpoint because you avoid putting someone on the payroll. You avoid some of the fringe benefits that come with having more staff," Smith said. "If something happens and, for some reason, the project dies and there's no money, you can just fire them. It's not like hiring somebody and guaranteeing somebody a place of employment and then the money run out." 


Morris said in his experience, the only time he's ever seen a project manager is during the construction of something a town's government and engineers are not familiar with. 


"It's not unusual on special projects to go out and hire a project managing firm that specializes in a particular type of construction, but ordinary construction is much more frequent," he said.


Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.



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