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This flare on top of a building that houses four digesters at the St. Joseph Water Protection Facility.

A venting system on top of the St. Joseph Water Protection Facility is designed to release pressure that builds up inside sewage digesters.

Over the years, a similar pressure has developed inside some members of the St. Joseph City Council regarding public money paid for outside expertise. Those council members vented frustration when they rejected a $176,000 contract for design work on upgrades at the treatment plant.

The proposed contract with HDR Engineering would have paid for design work on upgrades to the gas collection system, including relocation of a burn-off flare away from those pressure-relief vents. The measure went down 3-to-6 at the Oct. 7 council meeting.

“We need to quit farming out this stuff, because we’re dropping a lot of money on these designs,” said Councilman Kent O’Dell, who led the charge to kill the proposal. “... half the the time we’re not getting our money’s worth.”

O’Dell raises good points on an issue that is much broader and more complicated than whether to move a pipe. The city is budgeted for 10 employees in its engineering staff, so why not do more work in-house?

At some level, the city seems to understand the council’s skepticism. In its 2020 budget, the Public Works Department outlines a goal of providing design services for most small- and medium-sized projects. The budget shows that utilities and contracts make up about 12 percent of the city’s engineering budget.

Public Works Director Andy Clements, at the council meeting, said he explored other options but didn’t feel the city’s existing engineering staff had the background necessary for work on this kind of specialized project. He said, to those of us without an engineering background, that it’s not that simple.

We get it. Maybe this isn’t the project that calls for a do-it-yourself approach. Flames and gas are a combustible mix, so the city has an interest in getting this upgrade competed and getting it done right. Maybe it’s not easy for the city to go out and hire another engineer, when the private sector is likely to pay considerably more for someone with the same qualifications.

But city staff should understand that O’Dell gives voice to a general public that probably had similar concerns over the years about the wisdom of providing six-figure contracts to create designs and specs for projects that another company will come in and complete. At some point, someone was going to say, “enough is enough.”

In this sense, O’Dell and those who voted with him are asking the right questions. It is up to the city staff to come up with answers that satisfy not only the council, but the general public.