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Pippi Mayfield, Forum Communications, Published December 15 2012

Detroit Lakes torn between engineering companies

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – For more than 75 years, this city has appointed its city engineer from what is now Ulteig Engineers.

But now that city engineer Jon Pratt has joined Apex Engineering Group – a firm formed by former Ulteig employees and executives, a splintering that prompted a still-pending lawsuit – Detroit Lakes is caught in a debate about whether to keep Pratt or find a new city engineer from within Ulteig’s ranks.

When Pratt announced that he would be leaving Ulteig, the city put out a request for proposals for other engineering firms to provide services to the city. Apex and Ulteig, both based in Fargo, as well as Bolten & Menk, based in Mankato, Minn., submitted proposals.

City Administrator Bob Louiseau said a committee of city staff and a council member reviewed the proposals and unanimously recommended keeping Pratt as the city engineer even though he’s moving to Apex. But members of the City Council don’t agree.

Alderman Ron Zeman said he’s not in favor of keeping Pratt on if he isn’t working for Ulteig because the company, which has employed the city’s engineer since 1935, has all the records of city projects.

He said he’s also concerned that some of Ulteig’s Detroit Lakes staff may lose their jobs if the firm loses the city’s business. The company built a new office in the North Industrial Park several years ago, he noted, and that should count for something.

Though Apex doesn’t have an office in Detroit Lakes yet, the city’s request for proposals requires that the firm selected have an office in Detroit Lakes within a couple months of being awarded the contract.

Pratt said Apex is setting up an office in Detroit Lakes with four engineers, two technicians and office support.

Ulteig President and CEO Eric Michel said last week that Ulteig’s commitment to Detroit Lakes is strong – financially, through taxes, utilities and rent, and through community service from its employees.

“While we are proud of our presence in the city, we are more proud of the 19 talented employees who work in our Detroit Lakes office,” he said.

City Attorney Charlie Ramstad said that the city has rights to the documents Ulteig possesses because it paid for the work. But there could be a gray area if the firm used some means to get information for those reports that weren’t part of the paid contract.

Technically, since Pratt was appointed city engineer, he will stay city engineer, regardless of where he works, unless the council appoints someone else.

Zeman said he doesn’t want the city to get involved in the legal battle between Ulteig and Apex. Ulteig Engineering is suing nearly two dozen former employees who quit Ulteig in 2010 to start Apex.

Ramstad said the council should make a decision based on engineering needs only. “We don’t want anything to do with it,” he said of the lawsuit.

Though Louiseau said the city doesn’t have enough work to warrant a full-time city engineer, the city has talked with Becker County in the past about combining engineering services. The county employs a full-time highway engineer, who has recently resigned, and the city uses the equivalent of a part-time engineer.

Alderman Bruce Imholte said he’s “not comfortable voting on this yet” until the city has met with the county about a possible partnership on an engineer.

“If we were ever going to do it, this would be the time,” Zeman said.

The council plan to meet with county officials before making a decision on the position in January.

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