City's engineering department is one-third smaller than it was in '09, and still losing talent 

Fighting the tide

City stormwater specialist Jeff Besse said last week that because of recent flooding, Colorado Springs' "entire stormwater system has been compromised." And a "conservative" estimate, based on an initial assessment, put the price tag at $10 million for repairing new damage to both public works and parks.

Those public works repairs will be added on to channel upgrades that have long been planned, making quite a workload for a city engineering department that's down to 53 people from 80 in 2009. Many were let go or retired amid reductions in force during the budget crunch, but others — including five this year — have opted to leave for other reasons.

While the city calls the turnover "within industry standard," Colorado Springs' former public works director, Helen Migchelbrink, says she's never seen it this bad.

Channeling work

On a snowy day in April, Mayor Steve Bach held a news conference to unveil his request for $8.8 million in reserve funds to pay for flood-control work on North and South Douglas Creek and Camp Creek to minimize flooding from the Waldo Canyon burn scar. He said he turned to reserve funds, earmarked for emergencies or times of great need, because "this is one of those times with respect to the Waldo Canyon Fire and the flood risk that we face."

At that same news conference, his chief of staff, Laura Neumann, called the projects "very significant" and "at the top" of the stormwater project list. City Council approved the appropriation in mid-May.

But no work has yet been done in either creek, and Camp Creek may not see that work for another 18 months. More on that later.

In its prepared statement, the city says it hired consulting engineering firms in June to assess what's needed on the eight miles of Douglas Creek's dual forks (both of which flow from the city's northwest side into Monument Creek), and expects to have that work under contract in October. The first two projects were posted for bid Sept. 4, with bids due Sept. 24. The other two projects, according to project manager Aaron Egbert, are to be posted this week.

The first two will cost roughly $2 million, Egbert says, while the other two will cost about $2.5 million, once additional damage from the recent storms is added. At a public meeting Thursday, maps lined a room at the Citizens Service Center, showing with colored dots the worst damage. Projects 1 and 2 had 14 red dots, the worst spots. But the two also had 61 orange dots, areas bordering failure.

City stormwater engineer Tim Mitros says the city is trying to make the most of its money by repairing the worst portions; he adds that it would be cost-prohibitive to replace them. All four projects are to completed by late spring 2014, the city says.

But then there's Camp Creek, which flows from the Navigators campus through Garden of the Gods before running between the north- and south-bound lanes of 31st Street to Fountain Creek. City spokeswoman Kim Melchor says this fall and winter, the city will tackle "some emergency short-term construction that will look at the integrity of the existing channel."

A larger fix, though, won't happen quickly — due to "complexities," as Melchor puts it. Mitros says the city needs to enlarge the drainage way to handle a 100-year storm from its current 50-year-storm size. One way to do that would be to build detention ponds in Garden of the Gods, an idea the Parks Department "has a lot of concerns about," Mitros says.

Or the channel could be widened, which might claim parking space along 31st Street, to which residents might object, he says.

The city recently hired a consultant to design the channel work. Public meetings are to begin soon, and the city said in its prepared statement that "we are hoping for Spring 2014 with a completion date of year end 2014." But Mitros says "it will be 18 months before we start construction."

Moving on

Neumann says there's ample personnel to handle the work on both creeks, noting that "through the [Camp Creek] design contract we are bringing aboard an additional inspector and engineer (on a contract basis)."

But in a statement, the city affirms that "the turnover of the previous Public Works Director/City Engineer, along with several of our Stormwater engineers ... has had some impact on expediting some Stormwater projects." Records obtained through the Colorado Open Records Act show that city engineering lost four engineers in 2012 and another five this year, including 16-year employee stormwater engineer Lisa Ross and 11-year employee senior engineering inspector Todd Sturtevant, both of whom went to Colorado Springs Utilities.

Records show the 80-person department lost 33 full-time employees from 2009 through mid-September this year, not including two who were discharged. Most — 22 — were laid off or retired in 2009 and 2010 amid the city's budget crunch and the disbanding of the Stormwater Enterprise. But since then, 11 more have either retired or taken other jobs.

One is Scott Newkirk, who retired in January after 28 years with the city. That's two years earlier than he'd planned, but he says he made the move after inspectors like himself were ordered to handle a mix of inspections — on roadways, stormwater and subdivisions — instead of specializing in one area as they had since 2000. The change, he says, stemmed from the loss of many of the city's inspectors in recent years. (Migchelbrink puts it this way: "It was an efficiency move given the diminishing pool of employees.")

Other engineers, Newkirk says, left due to "a lot of rumors of outsourcing public works." So instead of waiting until the big layoff — the likes of which the Fleet Department will face in January, when the city outsources that 59-person operation to a private contractor — Newkirk says employees wanted to "get out while the gettin's good."

One of the key players who left was Migchelbrink. She resigned in May after one year and returned to the Fort Collins area, where she now works for the Colorado Department of Transportation. Noting her 20 years in engineering and public works, most spent in management, Migchelbrink says via email the city's turnover is unusual.

"I have never experienced as high of a turnover rate than what we experienced in the Colorado Springs Engineering Department," she writes. "In Fort Collins and Eagle County we had annual turnover rates of less than 2% in the engineering departments. High turnover makes it difficult to attract new employees since retention of the existing employees can be seen as problematic by job seekers."

The city's prepared statement acknowledges "our city lost institutional knowledge and talent" due to "uncertainty of their career future and uncertainty of Stormwater governance and funding." But, it goes on, "much of the uncertainty has been addressed" with the appointment of Dave Lethbridge (a former mid-level manager who retired from the city in 2009) as public works director; Bach's pending announcement of prioritization of stormwater projects on Oct. 9; and "transparent communication on optimization processes in 2014."

Asked for clarification of that last statement, Neumann says, "a formal Optimization Committee has been formed focused on processes and recommendations to Mayor Bach for potential community partnerships, outsourcing to private organizations, or heightened staffing/services within our organization with staff input; City staff feel more part of the overall process."

As of Sept. 13, engineering had 53 employees, two more than the 51 for which the city budgeted this year.


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