Having Engineer In-House is Enhancing Public Works

Employing a new Park & Public Works director/city engineer should have a significant impact on future improvement projects in the city of San Marino, but after Dan Wall came aboard two months ago, interim City Manager Cindy Collins couldn’t resist a few backward glances.
“I told him,” she said, “that if he’s not comfortable with sets of plans that were ready to go out, stop, review them. We’re not just going to throw them out there because they were developed. I want him to have full confidence in what we’re sending out to bid.”
Wall took those instructions to heart. It’s something he willingly embraces, he said, because he knows that any problems that arise will land squarely on his desk — trailed closely by pointed questions from members of the City Council.
“As a representative of the city, I am more invested in making sure we have clean proposals that go out than does a contract engineer,” Wall said. “… I did a pretty comprehensive review of an upcoming street lighting project, and made some changes. They are things that are missed when people don’t have the same level of ownership that somebody who is going to be here and living with it will have. It’s a different level of responsibility than somebody who designs it, receives their pay and then leaves.”
San Marino decided to hire a public works director because it has placed such a high priority on rehabilitating the streets and sidewalks, converting its streetlights to low-voltage and upgrading some of its facilities, notably at Lacy Park. Then-City Manager John Schaefer conducted a protracted search until he found a suitable candidate, one with extensive engineering experience in both the public and private sectors.
Wall, who has an undergraduate degree in civil engineering from Cal State Northridge and a master’s in business from USC, previously worked in private engineering firms and as the city engineer for San Fernando before holding executive public works positions in Whittier and Baldwin Park.
San Marino previously farmed out its engineering work, but Collins said, “The thing I think is critical here is having an engineer in-house to review plans. Well-developed plans save money. If you don’t have well-developed plans, you have change orders, you have difficulties.
“If you have well-developed and well-defined plans that are calling out things specifically, it lets bidders bid accurately, and you can hold them accountable to numbers.”
On several projects in recent months, San Marino has experienced the reverse of this.
The dilapidated pathway was completely reconstructed last fall, but the City Council was subjected to some sticker shock when the final bill came in. It had allocated $235,000 for the project, but the cost escalated to $318,163 — a 35% overrun. After Schaefer cut a check for the difference, council members expressed displeasure that the matter hadn’t been brought before them for discussion. “The city manager went ahead with it and asked for forgiveness rather than permission,” Councilman Richard Ward said.
The problems were largely underground and, thus, unforeseen: water pipes found in unexpected places, resulting in the relocation of infiltration basins; a raising of the curb and gutter to direct rainwater into the basins; more asphalt; and — there it is — additional contract engineering.
The wave of complications caused council members to consider establishing a cost overrun threshold for future major projects, so that they can have input before a check is written.
The city is keen on demolishing the nondescript brown box of restroom near the children’s playground and replacing it with something resembling its Spanish-style, non-identical twin nearby (which will be converted to storage).
The contract engineer estimated that the work could be done for $250,000, but the initial bids were in a range of $418,066-$625,458. Some of the excess resulted from the need to conduct soil compaction before pouring a new concrete slab (the city decided instead to work with the existing slab), but the cost of many of the materials also exceeded the engineer’s estimate. The project is currently out to bid again, after a number of changes were made to the plans.
Similarly, the engineer’s estimate for installing an area of picnic tables and a other enhancments next to the Rotary Centennial Clock at Huntington Drive and San Marino Avenue was wildly low. The work was estimated to cost $21,000, and a previous City Council committed $10,000 to the project, with the remainder to be raised through community donations. The lone bid, however, came in at $54,989 last fall.
The parklet, proposed by four San Marino High School students in 2014, was widely viewed as the pet project of a former city councilman who championed it, but it seemed to stir far more detractors than supporters. The current City Council dealt it an unceremonious death this past spring.
Rotting timbers made it a liability hazard, and when Dr. Matthew Lin and his wife, Joy, came forward this spring with a donation for the estimated replacement cost, $117,940, the City Council gratefully accepted it. The city had an additional $17,000 in Parks Department funds to cover any overruns.
This time, the city did receive a bid that matched the estimate … until the contractor actually began work on it. Once he got a closer look, he informed the city that the reconstruction would require twice his bid.
So now that project is on hold again, as Wall prepares 2-3 options to gauge the appetite of the council and the community in terms of replacement cost.
“There wasn’t enough research that was actually done on the condition of the arbor before they went out for bid for repairs,” Wall said. “The city’s contract engineer did a little bit of spot checking and then made an assumption as to the condition of the overall arbor. Sadly, he was very mistaken as to the condition of the arbor — it was in a much worse state of repair. [The estimate] was a far lower number than what had to be done there.”
The City Council seemed delighted with Wall’s engineering background at the announcement of his hiring. Still, in budget discussions at the end of the fiscal year, it raised an eyebrow over the line item for contract engineering services in 20167: $88,000. With a city engineer now on the payroll, will the city really have to pay that much? The council vowed to monitor the situation closely.
Wall seems to welcome the scrutiny. He said he finds the City Council “very engaged,” adding, deadpan, “they read staff reports, which is refreshing.”
After two months on the job, he continued, “So far, I’ve been very impressed with this city, and see my role as being a caretaker — making sure that things are properly maintained, with an eye toward those things that aren’t seen: sewers, storm drains. [My role is] just to make sure the quality of life is maintained here.”

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