By Zach Jensen,
Just when Winneshiek County thought its prayers had been answered and that a new and experienced engineer had been hired for the county engineer’s position, its hopes were again quashed.
During the Oct. 30 Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors meeting, Andrew Gettler was named as Candidate 3 in the application process. And, also during that meeting, it was announced that he was interested in the position and was to begin his new duties within two weeks of being hired. He reportedly said he was planning to move to Decorah by the second semester of the 2023-24 academic year.
However, Supervisor Board Chair Dan Langreck announced in the Nov. 6 meeting that Gettler had since declined the position due to reasons having nothing to do with Winneshiek County, including the recent interest rate hikes. So far this year, the federal interest rate has increased 11 times, and mortgage rates have also drastically increased.
“So, what do we do?” Langreck asked the Board. “Do we go out … and look for more applicants, I guess.”
In the ensuing discussion, two supervisors suggested the possibility of re-hiring former Winneshiek County Engineer Lee Bjerke – while other supervisors disagreed with that suggestion and advised the county should pursue other options.
“Basically, we’d have to find somebody who wants to take the job here,” said Supervisor Mark Faldet. “Or, see if we can have our previous engineer come back on better terms.”
This past May, Bjerke, who’d been Winneshiek County’s engineer for nearly 30 years, resigned due to what he considered a “hostile work environment”, according to his letter of resignation. After Bjerke’s departure in June, the county retained assistant County Engineer Isaac Wiltgen as interim Engineer. However, just weeks after Bjerke left, Wiltgen passed away unexpectedly.
“I don’t see that happening,” Langreck said. “It’s not good business practice to hire someone who has resigned.”
“But,” Vermace said, “that would get us back on track immediately.” Faldet stated he would be in favor of re-approaching Bjerke as well.
“That’s a non-starter in my mind,” added Supervisor Steve Kelsay. “I suggest we talk to the other candidates again and see what we have there.” Kelsay asked if there were any options for sharing the position with adjacent counties.
“Only one that was a ‘maybe’ was Allamakee,” Steines said. “They were the only one that didn’t flat-out say ‘No.’”
When asked about the possibility of finally contracting with a headhunting company, Steines said the most recent headhunting company he contacted charged 25 percent of the position’s salary, approximately $30,000.
“By the time we get one in place, going that route,” Vermace said, “you’re going to miss the bidding season, and that will cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars more.”
“We have an opportunity to get one of the best in the business back in that office, and we would not be doing our due diligence if we didn’t sit down and have a talk with him (Bjerke). We could hit the ground running and save this county … hundreds of thousands of dollars. Let your egos go on this one.”
“I took the same oath as you did, Shirley,” Kelsay said, “and my constituents had an entirely different opinion than what you’re talking about. So, I’m serving my constituents and the rest of the county, likewise. These other rural supervisors probably feel the same way, but I can’t speak for them.”
Vermace persisted, “No other county engineer applied for this job. No assistant engineers in the State of Iowa applied for this job. Dubuque used to be the toxic county in Iowa. Winneshiek County is now the toxic county.”
“We’re not hiring Lee back,” Langreck said. “What are we going to do to go forward?”
Vermace asked if Vick had ever talked with Bjerke – to which both Vick and Langreck said that they had. “We said ‘Lee, we are willing to work with you,’” Langreck said.
“’Nope,’” added Vick. “That’s the answer we got. Our equipment is shot. He had no idea it was even going on. He’s the engineer. That’s his job. We have the Bluffton blacktop, two years old, the sides are busting off it.”
After a brief discussion following Vick’s statement, Langreck asked the Supervisors what the plan was, moving forward. “The past is the past,” he said. “We’re not revisiting it anymore.”
It was agreed that Kelsay and Faldet would visit Allamakee County to discuss possible options for the county engineer position later in the week. The supervisors agreed to remain open for applications for the county engineer’s position for the next two weeks and discuss options in future meetings.