MSD board gives initial OK to member’s ex-employer for $5 million in engineering work

By Kari Williams

A Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District board member’s former employer was given initial approval as the engineering firm for multiple projects totaling more than $5 million at last week’s Board of Trustees meeting.

Chairman Bob Berry spent his engineering career with the firm, Burns & McDonnell Engineering Co. Inc., from which he retired in 2007. Berry was appointed to the MSD board in 2008.

MSD staff selected Burns & McDonnell for the contracts. The Board of Trustees will consider final approval of the contracts at its September meeting.

Berry told the board he would abstain from all votes that involve Burns & McDonnell because of his previous employment.

Tom Sullivan, a longtime MSD critic, asked Berry if he receives a pension from Burns and McDonnell, to which Berry said he does not.

Berry also abstained from voting when Burns & McDonnell previously was selected by MSD staff during his time on the board.

Sullivan said the contracts on the agenda for the meeting — not just the engineering work to be provided by Burns & McDonnell — is an “incredible amount.”

“It seems like there’s just this orgy of spending for engineering work,” he said.

The Burns & McDonnell contracts totaled $5,007,000. Other engineering services contracts, which were introduced at the board’s July meeting and approved last week, totaled more than $24 million.

Lance LeComb, MSD manager of public information, said engineering contracts are approved on an annual basis, which is why so many are seen in June and July.

As far as cost is concerned, when compared to industry standards, LeComb said MSD is better than average. Similar capital programs average 70 percent of spending on construction, with 30 percent for non-construction costs, including engineering and surveying. MSD’s non-construction cost is between 20 percent and 25 percent.

“(We are) doing much better than what our peers have done in the past,” he said.

Additionally, Sullivan said MSD’s intention is that contracts are competitively bid, but “everybody knows that’s not the case.”

“Years back, we had a guy who was kind of a whistleblower who worked for one of your biggest engineering firms,” Sullivan told the board. “He made the statement that a lot of these were based on political considerations … So the idea that these are all competitively bid, of course, has never been the case.”

LeComb said that whistleblower complaint by a Horner & Shifrin employee occurred more than 20 years ago. MSD, according to LeComb, goes through a quality-based selection process that is “laid out with state law,” and Sullivan’s comment regarding MSD not competitively bidding contracts is “absolutely false.”