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To keep up with development, North Dakota cities, counties look to private engineering for help

Press Photo by Katherine Lymn KLJ engineers Mark Milstone, left, and Craig Kubas discuss projects in Kubas' Dickinson City Hall office Wednesday. The city decided to contract out its engineering with KLJ after struggling to fill the city engineer position in Dickinson's competitive hiring atmosphere.

When the City of Dickinson decided earlier this month to contract out its city engineering to KLJ, it joined a trend of cities and counties turning to private companies for engineering help in order to keep up with rapid oil boom-related development.

"We're trying to catch up with the city," KLJ's Jerry Krieg said of the firm's work for Dickinson.

He and others at KLJ work from the firm's office, while two of the engineers moved into Dickinson City Hall this month.

Craig Kubas and Mark Milstone say they're still catching up on calls and emails that went unanswered for two weeks while Dickinson worked to fill the city engineer position.

City Administrator Shawn Kessel said the city had offered the engineer position to an individual who turned it down because of high housing costs around town.

That hiring problem has plagued cities and counties across the Oil Patch -- some have even turned to building their own housing for teachers, police officers and others to get positions filled.

Kent Indvik of Wold Engineering, which has done engineering for about 17 North Dakota counties, some for at least 20 years, said the company recently started doing some projects for Williams County as well because of the extra work there.

McKenzie County has contracted out various projects for at least a decade, but has worked with more companies since the boom began, said Suhail Kanwar, the county's engineer.

The engineers share a struggle of having to work reactively instead of planning ahead.

Kanwar said the truck traffic in McKenzie County, in the heart of the boom, impacts roads and shortens their lifespans.

"We are managing chaos honestly," he said. "There's no way we can be proactive. We have been trying very hard to get there."

Genny Dienstmann, executive director of the North Dakota Association of County Engineers, said trying to get their infrastructure caught up with development is one of oil counties' greatest challenges.

"I think the difficult area, especially in the western part of the state, is (that) the impact on the infrastructure has been so vast and so great," she said.

Watford City assistant city planner Seth Sampson said the city hired Dickinson firm AE2S for some of its engineering because there was so much work to keep up with.

"We need a large engineering firm to help us do this work just because ... everything happened so fast we needed someone right now," he said.

The increased workload for cities and counties is a combination of private commercial projects to review and public works projects like roads and bridges needed because of heavier traffic.

"Everything's driven from the oil boom," Sampson said, "but it's just as much of a building boom as it is an oil boom."