Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

EDITORIAL: Three strikes on SEH

After three straight fiascos, it’s time to reconsider a troubled relationship

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In baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out. The same should apply to the city of Tower’s engineering firm, Short, Elliot and Hendrickson, or SEH, which has swung and missed on the last three projects it’s handled for the city of Tower.

As we report this week, a series of questionable, possibly unauthorized, decisions regarding the recent improvements around the harbor could put at least some of the state funding at risk for that project. At a minimum, it now appears that the city’s suspended clerk-treasurer, Linda Keith, miscalculated in bidding the project, leaving the city potentially on the hook for $120,000 in fees to SEH that were supposed to have been covered in the grant. That’s $120,000 the city doesn’t have.

While the clerk-treasurer deserves much of the blame for this devastating situation, it’s a mistake that SEH’s project manager should have caught as well.

While the work around the harbor looks nice, it’s not the project that city officials proposed to the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources in 2016. That grant proposal had called for a aggregate sidewalk around the harbor, a half-mile-long bituminous connecting trail to the Mesabi Trail, and signage for a designated kayak and canoe route along the East and West Two rivers and a portion of Lake Vermilion.

But somewhere along the way, the Mesabi Trail connection was dropped, the kayak route was all but forgotten, and the money was diverted to pay for decorative lighting and fencing and a 150-foot section of floating dock/boardwalk at the harbor.

Such a major change to an LCCMR project requires approval of a modification proposal, which neither Keith nor SEH submitted to the LCCMR. Both parties should have known that what they did put at least a portion of the city’s funding at risk.

They also could not have been unaware that a second phase of funding is supposed to pay for a trailhead kiosk associated with the connecting trail. Do Keith and SEH now propose to build a trailhead with no trail?

If this were an isolated case, it could possibly be forgiven, but it’s just the latest example of questionable project management by Keith and SEH. As we’ve reported in recent weeks, the Lamppa Manufacturing facility has been plagued by months of delay and miscommunication over the kind of equipment that Lamppa officials wanted installed in the new plant— which has now prompted even more delay. In the end, this project will be delivered nearly a year after it was supposed to be completed.

And that project came on the heels of an even worse debacle involving a massively-expensive and unnecessary sewer extension to the Hoodoo Point Campground. We’ve previously documented some of SEH’s failures in the handling of that project, which is now in litigation.

Questions about this project abound, including the complete lack of due diligence surrounding the issue of need. The SEH engineer on the project recommended connecting the campground to the city sewer without documenting that the robust triple-mound septic system (designed for 40-50 years) that had served the campground for just 25 years, even needed replacement. The engineer told city officials that St. Louis County didn’t have a copy of the septic system’s design, but that was untrue.

Equally dubious was the initial application to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for connection to the city’s municipal wastewater system. That application showed just six RV sites would be connected to the wastewater system when both city officials and SEH engineers knew the entire campground, and it’s more than 70 sites, would be connected to the system. It’s unimaginable that such an oversight could have occurred on a wastewater connection application and have been overlooked by both the clerk-treasurer and the engineer, each of whom signed the application under penalty of perjury.

SEH officials clearly have some explaining to do. If the company’s services were inexpensive, one could at least recognize that you get what you pay for. But SEH has a well-deserved reputation for bringing big-city prices to engineering on the Iron Range. As for big-city delivery, it appears the firm has fallen woefully short, at least in Tower.

The big question at this point is where do we go from here? City officials in Tower need to be asking themselves if SEH is up to the job. Given the company’s poor performance, the city should be demanding compensation, and forgiveness of the $120,000 in engineering fees for the harbor project would be a good starting point. SEH has made a fortune off the city of Tower for more than a decade. City officials need to be asking if they’re getting what they’re paying for.

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