Bloomington’s proposed shuffling of engineering, parking would reverse, re-work similar move made in 2014

Part of last week’s 2021 budget proposal from Bloomington mayor John Hamilton might make some residents feel like it’s 2014 again.

In early July of 2014, then-mayor Mark Kruzan got the city council’s approval for a re-organization of city departments that moved two divisions out of the public works department.

Parking enforcement was moved from public works to the police department. And the engineering division was moved out of public works, into a newly created department of planning and transportation.

As a part of the 2021 budget proposal, parking enforcement is now proposed to be moved out of the police department and folded back under public works.

The engineering division is proposed to be moved out of planning and transportation, but not to its old home in public works. Instead, a new department of engineering is proposed, headed by the city engineer, which is a mayoral appointment under state law.

The city has found the retention of someone in the city engineer position to be a challenge over the last half dozen years. The position, which is called the transportation and traffic engineer, is currently open.

Taking parking enforcement out of the police department is loosely connected to the two additional non-sworn neighborhood resource officers that are proposed for the 2021 budget.

In 2014, the departmental reorganization was approved mid-year, through a change to the city’s salary ordinance for that year. Salary ordinances are adopted each year, which set the pay of employees.

The salary ordinances also serve to enumerate the different types of positions that exist and how many of each type of position there are. (When more than one position is authorized for a given job title, the number of positions is indicated inside parentheses.)

The proposed re-organization of parking and engineering this year will likely be reflected in the 2021 salary ordinance, which will get a first reading in front of the city council on Sept. 30.

Engineering: Two kinds of thinking

The history of the engineer’s placement within the city’s organizational structure is one that’s apparently fraught with conflict between automobile-centric thinking and multi-modal design.

During Thursday’s budget hearing, a recent instance of that conflict was recalled in the form of the city council’s split vote approving the repaving of College Mall Road. An update on that project: Painted bicycle lanes will be added for about the southern two-thirds of the stretch.

During last Thursday’s budget hearings, staff and city councilmembers sketched out some of the reasons for the 2014 change, which were consistent with some reporting by local media six years ago.

Deputy mayor at the time, John Whikehart, told The Herald-Times that the shift from public works to planning and transportation was meant to alleviate previous conflicts between two engineers. The city had a traffic engineer in the planning department and a city engineer in public works. The employees occasionally had conflicting ideas, and there was no hierarchy, Whikehart told the H-T.

Last Thursday, senior project engineer Neil Kopper, who’s serving as interim city engineer, told the city council, “In my opinion, and based on what I’ve gathered, from not being here at that time, it seems like that decision was made largely based on the people that were involved. [It was] a problem where people weren’t agreeing or people weren’t coordinating.”

Kopper added, “And it wasn’t necessarily a decision purely based on what was best organizationally and for reporting chains. …From my perspective, [the 2021 proposal] is an attempt to try to make a shift that makes sense organizationally, regardless of the people that are involved.”

Not mentioned last Thursday, was the federal prosecution of an embezzlement case against former public works employee, project manager Justin Wykoff before the 2014 reorganization. Based on H-T reporting at the time, the firing of Whykoff didn’t necessarily motivate it, but accelerated the move to reorganize the public works department.

In his remarks on Thursday, councilmember Steve Volan zeroed in on the nature of the conflict between the traffic engineer and the city engineer before the 2014 change. “[The planning department] would make transportation plans that were taking the city where we wanted it go. And public works would shrug at them. And the engineer would shrug at them. And they would continue to design streets as though cars are the only thing that matter.”

The meeting minutes from July 2, 2014 show that then-councilmember Chris Sturbaum saw conflicting views on the board of public works, not just between engineers:

Sturbaum said he was looking forward to bike boulevards with traffic calming. He was concerned, however, that the Board of Public Works members were not in favor of that policy of traffic calming, and that personal preference could be a road block to traffic calming in bike lanes. He said his belief was that the BPW’s role was one of a review of public safety rather than of implementation of policy based on their personal views of traffic calming.

The minutes from that meeting capture the deputy mayor’s response this way:

Whikehart said two different takes on engineering in the past (from two different departments) had probably contributed to the issue. He added that it wouldn’t happen any more; there would be leadership in engineering that would come from both the transportation and planning function. He said conflicting views of engineers wouldn’t be presented to the BPW.

On Thursday Volan added, “I think the previous mayor moved the engineer, so that planning would have oversight over engineering.” Volan asked Kopper for a reassurance that the same issue would not arise—that the new engineering department would not ignore transportation plans.

Kopper said, “A lot of it goes back to: We should be following our city’s own plans and our city’s own policies. These are adopted plans and it should rely less on any one individual’s decision.” Kopper said that the proposed new organization, with an engineering department independent of planning and transportation and public works, makes for three balanced voices in any conflict.

Kopper said, “This actually brings anything a third voice into that.” Under the 2021 budget proposal,”There are actually three departments discussing: Does this meet the city’s goals or does it not?” Kopper said. All three departments would have the ability to go up to the office of the mayor for help in that discussion, Kopper said.

Councilmember Matt Flaherty, who cast a dissenting vote on the College Mall Road repaving project earlier this year, asked Kopper about that situation. It’s one that for Flaherty illustrates a certain disconnect between transportation planning and the city’s choice of projects. The city’s transportation plan calls for a protected bicycle lane on College Mall Road, but a state grant was pursued for the repaving project, without including a protected bicycle lane.

Flaherty noted that a part of the discussion at the time was the idea that bicycle lanes might be striped in connection with the repaving, even if protected lanes could not be built. Kopper reported that the College Mall Road repaving project had been put out to bid and that for about two-thirds of the stretch, painted bicycle lanes were included. Responding to Kopper, Flaherty said, “Okay, that’s great to hear. Thank you for the update.”

Councilmember Kate Rosenbarger asked Kopper who would be in charge of the traffic calming questions that come in: Engineering or the planning and transportation department? Kopper responded to Rosenbarger by saying, “It would be coordination between us. Currently, the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator is leading the traffic calming program and that stays within the planning and transportation department.”

Rosenbarger replied to Kopper: “OK, so the budget goes with you, the person stays in planning and transportation. That’s hard.”

Engineering: Retention

During the media preview of the 2021 budget, deputy mayor Mick Renneisen responded to a reporter’s question by saying he thinks a part of the challenge in recruiting the position of city engineer is that it’s currently embedded in the planning and transportation department. Renneisen called that “a bit unusual.” Most city engineers, if they’re embedded anywhere, it’s in a public works department, Renneisen said. The salary was not competitive when the engineer was in a subordinate role, Renneisen said.

When the 2014 re-organization of public works and planning and transportation was approved, the salary grade for the engineer was a 10 on the 12-point scale used by the city. It was subsequently bumped up to 11. As head of a new department, the engineer will now likely be assigned a salary grade of 12.

Renneisen called the market for engineering services around the country “very competitive.”

Mayor Hamilton said during the media preview that he’d spoken to Andrew Cibor, who served as city engineer from March 2015 to August 2018. Cibor thinks a separate engineering department makes sense, Hamilton said. Cibor is now city traffic engineer at in Asheville, North Carolina.

Cibor had been hired after the position sat vacant for 11 months. Adrian Reid, who held the position before Cibor, resigned in April of 2014.

After Cibor’s departure in August 2018, his replacement, Craig Shonkwiler, was not hired until more than a year later, in November 2019. Shonkwiler resigned after seven months, in May 2020. So the position has now been vacant for about three months and counting.

Parking Services

The new parking services division was described this way in the budget memo from parking services director Michelle Wahl: “The new Parking Services Division will consist of all parking enforcement activities, including meter enforcement, special events, ticketing and overseeing the parking customer service agents, and will continue to manage and maintain the city garages.”

During Thursday’s budget hearing, councilmember Matt Flaherty asked public works director Adam Wason about the proposed addition of a transportation demand management coordinator. It’s the one full-time position that’s proposed to be added in 2021. And it’s now slated to be under the economic and sustainable development department.

But Flaherty told Wason he wondered if transportation demand management would be a possible fit for the parking division in public works.

Wason was circumspect about stating an opinion about which department the position should fall under. Wherever the position lands, Wason said, public works will be a strong partner in everything related to transportation demand management.

In 2014, when parking enforcement was moved out of public works and under the police department, the motivation was in part to expand community policing.

From the 2014 resolution:

WHEREAS, the transfer of the Parking Division from the Public Works Department to the Police Department will allow the Police Department to expand its community policing approach by better and more fully utilizing parking enforcement officers as additional eyes and ears for law enforcement officers.

During last Tuesday’s, departmental budget hearing, Bloomington police chief Mike Diekhoff said, the police department had expanded the duties and the role of parking enforcement officers. Instead of just writing parking tickets, they help with traffic direction, or help put out barricades. The idea was to take some of the pressures off of the patrol division, Diekhoff said.

Two additional neighborhood resource officers are proposed in the 2021 budget, which includes a reduction in sworn officers from 105 to 100. The two additional neighborhood resource officers would probably be “rebranded,” Diekhoff said, as more of a community service specialist.

Those positions will do a bit of what the parking enforcement officers did, and a little bit of what neighborhood resource specialists do, to help give uniformed officers some relief from minor calls, Diekhoff said.