Consultants grab big money
By Norm Winick
Government budgets are out of whack all over the nation. The federal government is trillions of dollars in the hole; the State of Illinois has a deficit approaching $11 billion; the Peoria School District is facing a $7 million shortfall and is planning school closings and drastic cuts.
Despite the financial crises that rule the news every day, the City of Galesburg is in remarkably good shape. They’ve got the money in the bank to pay cash for the $17 million water plant under construction in Oquawka. The city just bought nine new well-equipped police cars, each with a special thousand-dollar paint job. The City of Galesburg has very little debt and tens of millions in remaining bonding authority plus a cash balance in the bank exceeding $45 million.
The financial shape of the city is not because this or prior administrations have been frugal — quite the opposite. One category of expenditures that is often discretionary is “professional services.” Included in this budget line item are required engineering services that are not or cannot be performed by the city engineers, legal services handled by outside attorneys, plans that are beyond the scope of the city’s planning department, consulting fees for various projects and a variety of feasibility studies or plans for projects, some that will or have been built and many others that will never be heard from again.
A review of the city’s financial data, provided by Finance Director Gloria Osborn, shows that the City of Galesburg paid a total of $29,018,555 to outside architects, engineers, attorneys, consultants and other professionals from 2000-2008. That’s over $3 million per year.
Some of the amounts are one-time expenses such as $22,000 to The Mercer Group for the last City Manager search or $50,000 to Soules Bird Repellant for Crow Control Services downtown.
Others are ongoing projects such as the $225,000 already paid to Teska & Associates for the Unified Development Codification which Community Development Director Roy Parkin says will ultimately result in new zoning and planning regulations.
Another continuing expense is the “sign litigation” that’s discussed only in executive sessions and the details of which cannot be divulged. The case is being handled by outside attorneys from Holland and Knight, LLP instead of the city attorneys and we’ve paid them nearly $200,000 so far.
Many of the studies and plans were performed for projects that were ultimately constructed. Williams Associates was paid nearly $125,000 for the architectural and engineering work at Lake Storey and the wading pools. CTE Engineers was paid over $95,000 for the feasibility study for the new water treatment plant now under construction.
Some of the studies provided information that may or may not have gone into a policy change or the construction of something. The Farnsworth Group collected over $15,000 from the city to study our water rates. REI charged over $47,000 to perform a Transit Development Study. Shive Hattery collected another $22,000 in 2008 for a Transit Facility Needs Analysis. Smith Group JJR, Inc. was paid over $56,000 to design a downtown streetscape in 2000 and redesign the Central Square. Massie and Massie was paid another $47,000 to do the same thing last year.
The city has enlarged and created new TIF Zones using the services of a consultant, Peckham, Guyton, Albers and Viets, from St. Louis, who have collected $93,000 for their advice.
Far too many of the outside consultants were paid big money for studies that resulted in … nothing. They are the most frustrating items in the documents because of the large fees paid to firms to study projects that never proceeded. It appears that many of them could have been ruled out before the consultants were paid their full amount.
Among the studies gathering dust are the $12,500 Soccer Complex Feasibility Study by Teska Associates, the $300,000 Railroad Relocation study by TDKA, The Railroad Quiet Zone Analysis by SRF Consulting that cost over $77,000, the Wind Turbine Assessment by Wind Energy Consulting for $4,900, the Public Works Facility Study by Kueny Architects for $4,250 and the $28,000 paid to EDC, Inc. several years ago to get us a Foreign Trade Zone which we don’t yet have.
One of the more recent studies is $58,000 paid to the Buxton Group to tell us which retailers might be a match for Galesburg. Unfortunately, according to Galesburg Economic Development Director Cesar Suarez, the collapse of the economy has made much of the information outdated — both on Galesburg’s demographics and on the retailers’ expansion plans. He admits he hasn’t yet been able to take advantage of the data in any beneficial way.
Some of these studies may cost even more than indicated if there were bills submitted either before or after the time periods I had access to.
According to Osborn, if a project is built, the costs of the feasibility study or plans are often moved over to the line item for the project itself so there could easily be many more millions of dollars paid for professional services than are indicated in the reports.
There are other plans and studies that were paid for either before or after the records I examined or out of other funds than the general fund. This is a list I compiled from the data and from memory of studies the City has had performed within relatively recent years.
Airport Utilization Study
Amtrak Depot Study
Armory Redevelopment Study
Boutique Hotel Study
Buxton Retail Study
Comprehensive Park Plan
Downtown Streetscape Plan 1
Downtown Streetscape Plan 2
East Main Corridor Plan
Fire Station Location Study
Foreign Trade Zone Feasibility
Kiwanis Park Plan
Kiwanis Park Plan
Old Holiday Inn Reuse Study
Pavilion Renovation Study
Public Works Facility Study
Quiet Zone Study
Railroad Grade Crossing Study
Railroad Relocation Study
Soccer Complex Plan
TIF Extension Study
TIF V Plan
TIF Zone Study
TIV IV Plan
Transit Facility Study
Water Park Plan
Water Rate Study
Water Rate Study
Water System Study
Wind Energy Study
While some of these “professional services” and feasibility studies are necessary to apply for state or federal grants and others just cannot be performed in-house, there are many millions of dollars spent on reports that could have been generated by existing city staff or with the cooperation of area college students and professors or even volunteer members of the public. Other projects could have been eliminated for consideration on their face — despite the best efforts of the sales team from the out-of-town consulting firms with their nice suits and fancy briefcases full of portable technology. With what we’ve spent on studies now gathering dust, we could have built a state-of-the-art new library or upgraded much of our water system.