When weighing whether a county government should hire an engineer on-staff or contract out for services, counties must take into consideration the full scope of expected workload, says the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Dennis Truax, current president of ASCE and former Director of the Mississippi State University Rula School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, says counties must create an all-encompassing infrastructure and road plan to justify hiring an in-house engineer.
Oktibbeha County has long contracted out its engineering needs but plans to explore hiring a full time in-house engineer beginning in 2023.
“We’re going to see what hiring an in-house county engineer looks like,” District 4 Supervisor and board president Bricklee Miller said last week. “We’ve got so many things coming up that we really feel like that it will move us into a positive, new direction as a unit system.”
Hiring an on-staff engineer is not cheap, Truax said, with some engineers having six-figure salaries, and if Oktibbeha County were to ever hire someone in-house, it must be committed to the process. He believes if the county is willing to develop a plan that rehabilitates all of its infrastructure on a 7-10 year cycle, that would be enough work to keep an engineer busy to justify hiring one.
“It really depends on the amount of work the county wants to do and is committed to doing,” Truax said.
Truax said he has seen counties with in-house engineers, but more often they contract out with an engineer. Oktibbeha County has contracted with Pritchard Engineering in recent years.
Workload isn’t the only thing to consider when deciding between in-house and contract, Truax cautioned, stressing the fact that counties sometimes have difficulty in finding a good engineer who can provide consistency, dedication and help the county plan strategically and use resources effectively and in a sustainable way.
“The amount of county work isn’t sufficient to justify hiring somebody full time to do it either because of the cost of hiring somebody competent or the likelihood that they would hire somebody that’s not competent to do all of the work,” Truax said. “Hiring somebody full time does not assure that they will have somebody capable of doing all county work.”
City of Starkville
The city of Starkville currently has a full-time engineer on staff, of which Mayor Lynn Spruill said she believes is much more efficient and effective due to availability and sole commitment to one entity.
“From my perspective, I think it’s much more economically feasible,” Spruill said. “You also have someone with immediate access. You don’t have to worry about them being contracted out to others when you’re in need of them.”
Edward Kemp, who serves as the city’s engineer, said he oversees all engineering projects and works with any other city department to give guidance or consulting for their engineering needs. He said he believes having an in-house engineer gives the city more accessibility and contact.
Kemp said an in-house engineer cannot specialize in one particular area, but instead must be a “jack of all trades” that can administer several kinds of projects. He said at times this can be a disadvantage because there will be specialized skills needed for a project that he does not have, to which he would then have to consult with an outside firm. Kemp said an advantage to outsourcing engineering is having the accessibility to certain types of equipment that the city does not own.
“If they are very, very large projects that have a short timeline, then we will subcontract those out to those specialized folks,” Kemp said of the city. “ … It really just depends on the kind of project, our timeline and our availability with our current workload.”
When needing to work with an outside firm, Kemp said the city subcontracts with other engineers, and he works with them to ensure the project meets the city’s expectations.
Lowndes County outsources its engineering with Calvert-Spradling Engineers. Lowndes County board of supervisors president Trip Hairston said he prefers the way his county chooses to operate its engineering. He said he does not know if counties have enough projects or work for an engineer to oversee to justify hiring someone full-time and thinks hiring an engineer with a firm allows for more knowledge of details.
“You gain some benefit by having them working with other people,” Hairston said. “For example, Calvert Spradling, we gain some benefits from them. Not only are they the engineer for the county, but they’re also the engineer working on various rural water associations.”