Opponents of the Platte to Park Hill stormwater project worry Denver will slip the work into on-call contracts

This isn’t the first time on-call contracts have been the subject of discussion at Denver City Council.

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Public works officials promised no one will dig up City Park Golf Course through an on-call contract. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver Public Works officials reassured City Council members on Monday that work on the controversial Platte to Park Hill project will be presented for council approval as stand-alone contracts later this year.

City Council had been presented with a series of what’s known as on-call contracts worth up to $56 million over a three-year period. The 14 contracts with various engineering firms were each worth up to $4 million and the scope of work was described as “to provide comprehensive engineering services to support various Public Works capital projects, and general engineering services in connection with the planning, design, and construction of various projects citywide.”

That could be almost anything, and it pretty much can be.

That’s why opponents of the controversial flood control project — controversial because opponents believe it’s more about protecting an expanded, sunken I-70 than taking large swathes of northeast Denver out of the flood plain — were worried that work on the project was moving forward under their noses.

Public Works officials told council members that they’ll be bringing the Platte to Park Hill work back to council for approval sometime this summer and that it won’t be done through on-call contracts.

This isn’t the first time on-call contracts have been the subject of discussion at council.

Denver uses on-call contracts to be able to move quickly on small- and medium-sized public works projects. The procurement process on an individual contract can take between 60 and 120 days, Public Works officials told the City Council. Many of the projects that are done under these contracts are — on their own — less than the $500,000 threshold that requires council approval, and most of the on-call contracts don’t reach their caps.

Having a bunch of on-call contracts approved means that Public Works has a line of money it can spend at any of several pre-approved firms and can move quickly on projects that are already part of the city’s capital improvement plan or a department’s annual budget.

Some council members have raised concerns for a while now that they don’t get enough information about the work being done through on-call contracts, and their ability to provide effective oversight is compromised. There’s no specific allegation of wrong-doing here, just a concern that a lot of money is going out the door without a detailed accounting to the elected officials that sign off on these contracts with their votes.

That concern has spread to the broader community as the city develops plans for a series of contested projects, including the Platte to Park Hill stormwater project.

Councilman Paul Kashmann requested a separate vote on the contracts Monday and then voted no, as did Councilwoman At-large Debbie Ortega, a frequent critic of on-all contracts.

“I don’t believe there is anything crooked that goes on with these contracts, but there is some concern about getting ongoing updates about how the money is spent,” Kashmann said.

Public Works officials said City Council members will start getting updates on spending under these contracts very soon. Ortega said council members should have more information about the work anticipated to be done under these contracts before they vote, not after.

Councilman Rafael Espinoza voted yes with the majority, but he asked for a more detailed explanation of what work has been done through on-call contracts in previous years.