You Get What You Pay For

Would you pay more than $1 million for a recycling plan that doesn't include an implementation guide? Would you pay several hundred thousand dollars for a landfill closure plan that you couldn't afford to implement? Many large cities have done so - as well as many not-so-large ones.

These cities hired consultants to help them develop a plan which they believed they couldn't develop with their staff. In return, they wound up with an expensive document the size of a telephone book, with a menu of options and no guidelines for implementing the options under real-life conditions. Sadly, many times, they got exactly what they asked for.

When a community is faced with a new task, it makes sense to ask for help, especially when the task requires more time or experience than the present staff has available.

Not surprisingly, communities turn to consulting firms to engineer a solution. Surprisingly, however, some become so discouraged with the consultants' solution that they accuse reputable, talented consulting firms of foisting vague, expensive and unworkable products on poor unsuspecting communities. I suspect a misunderstanding here.

When hiring employees, you usually know which tasks they'll be required to perform. The same should hold true when you hire a consultant.

Consequently, you must make the time and effort to learn enough about the job to seek the exact help you need. You also must be able to evaluate prospective applicants' abilities. If the job calls for a gas pump attendant, for example, you wouldn't want to pay for a design engineer or even a skilled mechanic.

The potential problem is that the experienced consultants may have no experience with what you do; even fewer will have knowledge about local conditions. As a result, assuming you've articulated your needs properly and hired a firm with expertise and experience in solving your type of problems, the consultants still may not take into account your unique circumstances.

In addition, the most experienced personnel may devote their efforts to reviewing the work of less experienced assistants. This is common practice in law firms and other professional fields. To avoid misunderstandings, simply be sure you know who will do which tasks before you sign the contract. Since each individual's time is usually bid separately, it's common to receive a bid with the tasks, time and rates of each individual working on your project.

Across the country, communities faced with Subtitle D regulatory deadlines hired consulting firms for help with landfill closures, facility siting and other requirements. After spending large sums of taxpayers' money, some communities wound up with a document that was possibly more valuable as scrap paper than as a workable plan. The implementation costs were too high and officials weren't given specific steps to follow for implementation.

Consider, for example, a town told to import bentonite clay to achieve 1 x 10[superscript]-6 density for a liner or cap for its landfill. The nearest bentonite source may be so far away and so expensive to acquire that the town would become nearly insolvent trying to comply.

Perhaps the plan actually was adapted from another town's plan where acquiring and transporting bentonite was easily accomplished. Perhaps the consultant wasn't aware of the local lack of bentonite or the community's financial limits.

Disgruntled with their expenditures in time and money, some communities are joining a growing trend by turning to local expertise for problem solving. They're pooling their resources, skills and knowledge to achieve what none of them could have achieved separately.

Some individuals have become so skilled in helping others that they now work full-time as consultants. Most important, they're adept at answering the questions, "What is required?" and "How can it be accomplished with the resources available?"

The main lesson here is that community officials must have a clear understanding of what they need. Without that knowledge, you cannot intelligently evaluate what services, skills and experience to request to get the answers you need.

Be certain hands-on knowledge is available, as well as familiarity with local conditions, your resources and what additional help is available. Assure yourself that the consultants you hire have expertise in what needs to be done. Find out what they will and won't provide, who will be doing what and how much it will cost. Don't add to those tasks without being aware of the consequences. Otherwise you might get what you asked for - instead of what you need.