SIOUX CITY | The longtime practice of hiring outside consultants to help plan Sioux City's future won't end anytime soon, city officials say.
City Engineer Glenn Ellis said the city spends money on private firms because his department does not have specialized engineers to work on large-scale projects such as designing a proposed Cone Park or exploring new uses for the riverfront.
“Those would be specialized responsibilities that other consultants would do on a regular basis,” Ellis said. “If we’re doing it once every now and then, we’d have to do a lot of more background to get us caught up to speed.”
This year, the city paid $22,000 to examine the future of its municipal pools, $45,000 to create a preliminary design for the site of the former Argosy riverboat casino, $102,000 to study whether the proposed Cone Park could be constructed east of the IBP Ice Center and $72,340 to explore whether to develop a campground in the city limits.
Matt Salvatore, the city’s parks and recreation director, said hiring outside consultants saves the city money when designing projects that exceed the work load or go beyond the skill set of the city's engineering department.
“We’re always going to need an outside eye to focus on parks and recreation stuff that our city engineering staff doesn’t necessarily have the experience and training with,” Salvatore said.
Ellis added those projects would take longer to complete in-house.
“It would really slow down the work load overall because you’d be focusing primarily on that,” Ellis said. “Other work responsibilities would not be able to keep up.”
Sioux City’s engineering department, which has five engineers, typically works on water mains, road repairs and other smaller improvement projects. Of the staff, only Ellis and Brittany Anderson hold professional engineer certificates. The rest are working toward certification.
City officials, including Ellis, have acknowledged Sioux City has trouble hiring engineers with state certification.
“We’ve actually had a hard time hiring qualified professional engineers that are licensed,” Ellis said.
He also said the work of specialized engineers, who are hired, can hold more weight in winning City Council approval and securing funds for projects.
“Some people may have a grand idea that they could (do it themselves) …,” Ellis said. “It’s a lot easier to have a study to support your position than just to say, 'This is my opinion based on common sense.'”
City Manager Bob Padmore said some engineers are attracted to private firms that can offer more pay or benefits than the city can afford.
“Where we struggle are private business engineers,” Padmore said. “My sense is, they’re able to pay more, and they offer things the public sector doesn’t have, like profit sharing and ownership opportunities.”
An Iowa State University poll of 388 engineering graduates working in the government or private sector showed their annual salaries six months later averaged $61,159 in 2013-14.
In 2015, Sioux City paid entry-level engineers $56,681 to $79,354, and senior engineers, who hold state licenses, were paid $71,559 to $100,183, according to city data.
The city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, in comparison, does not currently employ any entry-level engineers, according to city officials. State-licensed engineers in Council Bluffs made $76,342 to $97,734 in 2015, according to the city's data.
Terry Lutz, president and CEO of Clive, Iowa-based McClure Engineering Co., said city and private company salaries are similar but that private firms can provide more options. McClure has an office in downtown Sioux City.
“When you look at pay and benefits, I think they’re very close,” Lutz said. “Career opportunities and long-term earnings are stronger in the private sector.”
Lutz said Sioux City has a need for skilled engineers but that some choose private companies to avoid “the bureaucratic process” involved with municipal governments.
He also said Sioux City might have trouble hiring skilled workers because engineers “have the ability to choose anywhere in the world they want to live and … quality of life is a big factor.” He also said cities need to have prospective careers for engineers' spouses.
”For communities to attract engineering talent, they’ll have to have opportunities for both,” Lutz said.
Ellis and Padmore agreed.
Padmore described a dilemma in which some younger engineers move to other, larger cities once they obtain their certification while working in Sioux City.
The city manager's solution to retain engineers is to mentor the young work force that comes to the city and create paths for them to grow.
“The problem we have is, the perception of Sioux City isn’t necessarily the reality for a lot of people,” Padmore said. “I personally find Sioux City a great and easy place to live.”
But Ellis said the city can do only so much.
“People may not find a draw to Sioux City," Ellis said.