Emphasis on private contracting may drive up local costs

By Ann McCreary

Okanogan County Commissioners don’t want county government competing with private business in providing public works services to municipalities, which has left some local officials wondering if they can turn to the county for assistance as they have in the past.

Towns and fire districts have contracted with the county in past years for projects they are unable to do, such as chip sealing and striping roads, or repairing public works equipment and fire trucks.

Municipal officials say the county is able to provide those services at lower prices than private contractors, and some types of contractors are not even available locally for certain jobs.

The current county commissioners, however, have said they want towns and fire districts to hire private contractors, rather than contract for those services with the county.

“The goal of the current board [of commissioners] is not to compete with private industry,” said Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy. “The biggest concern was to make sure we weren’t competing with private businesses that were providing the same thing.”

“We don’t have a policy … we have a preference. I’m all for private enterprise,” said Commissioner Ray Campbell. “We don’t like to have the county competing with private contractors, that’s not the county’s job.”

County less expensive

That stance has concerned municipal public works officials like Andrew Denham of Twisp, who said it is much less expensive for towns — and their taxpayers — to contract for services with the county.

“The county has a big equipment shop and would assist with mechanical work on equipment. A little town like us, if we had a problem they’d send a mechanic over,” Denham said.

“In one instance the county sent a mechanic for a repair and we got a bill for $195. To have someone from Wenatchee do the same work would have been $550 just for the travel,” Denham said.

Okanogan County Fire District 6 was recently challenged by the county commissioners’ stance on repairing vehicles for local government entities when one of the district’s fire trucks needed repairing.

“We used to have vehicles repaired at the county road shop. I was told by the county shop manager through one of our division chiefs that the county can no longer do work on fire district apparatus,” said Cody Acord, interim District 6 fire chief.

“It was after our last vehicle was repaired by the county shop that we were told no more bringing vehicles to county. That was in the spring,” Acord said.

“We try going to a local mechanic that can accommodate the vehicles first, and if they are not comfortable or able to do the work then we need to send our truck out or bring someone in to do the work. We ended up bringing someone in who was already traveling in our area for someone else, which reduced the travel cost for the mechanic,” Acord said.

“It is definitely a possibility of costing more depending on the situation,” Acord said. “Bringing someone in or driving farther to a mechanic is a cost factor to consider.”

“They don’t want to extend their hand like they used to,” said Zach Claussen, public works director of Conconully.  “That’s straight from the commission, not the public works staff.”

For regular maintenance of vehicles and equipment, Conconully uses local mechanics. But, Claussen said, “when you get into heavier vehicles — dump trucks, backhoes — it’s easier to go there [county public works]. They’ve got all the equipment” to do repairs.

Sealing and striping

Municipalities have contracted in the past with the county to chip seal and stripe town roads when county crews are working on county roads nearby. Contracting with the county to extend its equipment and crews into towns means a big cost savings, according to local officials.

“The last time the county chip sealed the West Carlton Road we made an agreement, they chip sealed all the way to SR20 for us. Twisp got a bill that was very inexpensive, a few thousand dollars,” Denham said. “We really appreciate that cooperation with those interlocal agreements.”

Hiring an out-of-area contractor to do the same job would be much more expensive, said Lee Webster, Brewster public works director.

“The cost is so much more in administration and mobilization. We’d have to go out to bid, have the project scoped, and have the private contractor come in … we can do much less with the same amount of money,” Webster said.

“What we were told is the county was concerned about fair market as far as competition — the county taking someone’s job,” said Jord Wilson, Pateros city administrator and public works supervisor.

“I do not know of anyone in Okanogan County that does chip sealing,” Wilson said. “So I don’t know who we [the county government] would be competing with,” Wilson said.

Frank Sautell, who worked for the county for 33 years and was the county public works director for five years before retiring in 2011, said the county routinely provided work through contracts with towns, cities and fire districts in the past.

“Now the commissioners think the towns need to go to the private sector and it’s costing … more money. We used to be able to do it at our cost. We weren’t there to make money like private industry. We could do it a lot cheaper and a lot faster,” Sautell said.

Some loosening?

Kennedy said she had a conversation recently with Denham, who expressed concern about the impact of the commissioners’ position on towns and cities.

As a result, Kennedy said, she asked the county engineer, Josh Thomson, “to look at those contracts, talk to city public works directors, to let us know what they need and how we can work together.”

“They [commissioners] don’t want the county competing with any local contractors. Since there are no contractors that do chip sealing in the area, they’ve loosened up on that,” Thomson said.  “Also striping. There’s a local contractor that will do parking lots, but is not set up with a truck that will do roads.”

Thomson said he recently discussed with Denham the county’s plans to chip seal the county portion of the Twisp-Winthrop Eastside Road in 2018, and the possibility of contracting with Twisp to extend the chip sealing into town.

Kennedy said some of the county’s reluctance to take on repairs of fire trucks and other equipment may have been due to being short on staff.

“For a little while we were low on mechanics at the public works shop,” she said.

Thomson said the county vehicle repair shop is fully staffed now and busy. “The commission has pointed out, and I agree, that we need to get our [the county’s] work done. If we’re at capacity with our work we won’t take any on.”

“This is one of the busiest years” for the public works department, Kennedy said. “We are putting $2.7 million into road infrastructure this year.”