BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
MONTROSE – It was an expected transition as current Assistant Lee County Engineer Ben Hull was tapped to take over the county engineer’s position starting Dec. 29.
At Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Lee County Board of Supervisors, Hull was approved to replace Ernie Steffensmeier, a 42-year veteran of the county engineering department.
The Danville High School graduate came back to the southeast corner of Iowa in 2009 when he was hired on with the Lee County Engineer’s office
Hull graduated from the University of Iowa in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, bu has been involved in county road work since his high school days.
“I graduated from Danville in 1998 and went to work with Des Moines County that summer and during college breaks on road crews. Then they moved onto their survey crew while I was still in college,” Hull said.
After a couple of years, Hull took a job in Iowa City while he was finishing his degree work and did construction and surveying work. After graduation, he took a job in Cedar Rapids designing residential and commercial developments and then served for four years as the Cedar County Asst. County Engineer. He also did a one-year stint with Polk County as it’s construction manager.
In 2009 he saw an opening for a position with the Lee County Engineers office and applied for that in hopes that he would be able to move closer to where he grew up.
Hull has served as Steffensmeier’s assistant since he arrived in 2009. Steffensmeier had been appointed County Engineer after Dennis Osipowicz stepped away from the position.
He said he doesn’t foresee any big changes coming in the department as things are going pretty well compared to other counties state wide.
“I don’t see this as a departure from what we’ve been doing,” Hull said. “Tech is always evolving, with things like robotic total stations and GPS that now runs off our cellphones. We can now literally just jump out of a truck and start working. From a management level these tech improvements allow us to have a better big picture of the county. But they also help us keep records and have our fingers on the pulse of everything a bit better than in the past.”
He said funding is moving target from the state and federal government and things in that area are constantly changing.
“There’s an ebb and flow to funding and where it comes form. I’ve always heard from the older guys that if you stick around long enough things will go one way and then cycle back and I think that’s kind of what’s going on now.”
Federal money is now, what Hull called “swappable” for state dollars to allow closer control and development of county projects.
“Right now were swapping federal money and that’s basically us trading federal dollars for state dollars. This allows us to develop our projects much more quickly. Right now on federal projects you best case scenario is usually a year to develop. But with these swap funds, I think we can cut some of these project timelines in half,” Hull said.
Steffensmeier and Hull both have indicated the county is in pretty good shape when it comes to its roads and bridges.
“While we do have more needs than we have funds, I think we should consider ourselves fortunate compared to other counties because our bridges and roads are in pretty good shape in the system as a whole. We’re positioned pretty well compared to others.”
Communication with the public, and funding, are two of the constant hurdles in the office.
“The hurdles are the same as always. Open discussions with the public and try to be responsive to them and to look ahead. It’s hard because you can’t predict how a road will perform over 10 years. You won’t know where funding will be and you don’t always know where to apply your limited funding,” he said.
One of his first tasks will be to replace himself. Asst. County Engineers require licensing, which can come after four years working full time in the field. He will also have another staff position to fill, with the department dropping to three full-time employees on the 29th when Steffensmeier retires officially. A reception for Steffensmeier is set for Dec. 28th from 2 to 4:30 p.m. at the North Lee County Office building.
“When Ernie retires we will be down one and we are already currently down one tech. We are looking to fill both those spots,” he said.