Bloomington city council set to OK new engineering department next week

On Thursday, the Bloomington city council’s four-member administration committee gave a favorable review to a proposed ordinance by mayor John Hamilton’s administration to establish a new engineering department, outside the current planning and transportation department.

At Thursday’s meeting, corporation counsel Philippa Guthrie called the need to establish a new department through an ordinance a “formality,” which councilmember Jim Sims said was “refreshing [for him] to hear.”

The requirement that the city council take legislative action to create a new department is required under state law. [36-4-9-4]

The creation of the department was anticipated as a part of the 2021 budget adopted by the city council in mid-October.

The proposal does not add new positions or change the physical location of any staff, but does put the city engineer, which is a mayoral appointment under state law, at the head of their own department.

The position of city engineer is currently vacant. Senior project engineer Neil Kopper currently serves as interim city engineer. The new configuration would give the engineer more direct access to the mayor and a bump in pay, compared to its current placement under the director of the department of planning and transportation.

Not a part of the proposed ordinance that the city council will vote on next Wednesday is a change to the name of the department that currently houses the engineer, which is planning and transportation.

When the administration’s intention to eliminate “transportation” from the department’s name, making it just the planning department, emerged at a budget meeting this fall, it rankled some councilmembers, in particular Steve Volan.

On Thursday, Volan said he supported the creation of an independent engineering department, and was glad no name change was a part of the proposal: “It serves everybody to make the engineer head of a separate department. So I’m very happy to support that. I’m also pleased to see that something that I expected to see is not here, which is that the name of the planning and transportation department would change.”

At the late September budget meeting when the possible name change emerged, Guthrie indicated she was not sure if changing a department’s name would require legislative action.

For the council’s administration committee on Thursday, the creation of an engineering department was not controversial. They were re-assured by answers they had received to written questions submitted to the administration.

Their area of interest was how reporting lines would work internal to the planning and transportation department and how the transportation function of the department would work.

Inside planning and transportation, the development and planning areas are headed up by two managers. Beth Rosenbarger is planning services manager and Jackie Scanlan is development services manager.

Deputy mayor Mick Renneisen described the roles of planning and transportation, engineering, and the public works department like this “Planning and transportation does create the transportation plan. …The engineering department is the implementer of the construction of the transportation infrastructure. … Public works maintains all that after engineering builds it.”

The relationship between those elements will not change with the creation of the new engineering department, Renneisen said.

Councilmember Sue Sgambelluri said on Thursday she appreciated the response to the question she had asked about any differences the public would see as the result of creating a new engineering department.

There should be no noticeable difference from a public perspective as a result of this reorganization. Both departments will share the same public phone number and the same administrative staff who are the face of the departments through general inquiries. We do think that some portion of the public will find it easier to access the engineering function of our organization because the department is called the Engineering Department. The public will no longer have to figure out if this function lies in Public Works, Planning and Transportation or elsewhere.

At the start of the committee meeting, which lasted just about 15 minutes, Guthrie recited some of the history of the public works and planning and transportation departments.

In early July of 2014, then-mayor Mark Kruzan got the city council’s approval for a reorganization 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, parking enforcement was moved out of the police department and folded back under public works.

The engineering division’s move out of planning and transportation did not take it back to its old home in public works.

Instead, a new department of engineering was assumed in the 2021 budget, headed by the city engineer, which is a mayoral appointment under state law.

The legislative action by the city council anticipated next week will codify the existence of the new engineering department, which was anticipated as a part of the city council’s adoption of the city’s 2021 budget.

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