By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News
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The city Utility Advisory Committee, an advisory body to the full City Council, recommended Tuesday afternoon approval of a contract to be worth no more than $87,500 — lower than the original $99,000 estimate — to Chicago-based West Monroe Partners to evaluate the city’s smart-meter project, the implementation of which has been delayed by more than a year.
Committee member Sissi Bruch, a city councilwoman, abstained, saying she still had concerns over the cost of the agreement and the alternatives to the city’s Advanced Metering Infrastructure project, also called the AMI project, or more commonly smart meters, that West Monroe Partners could provide.
“I totally agree we need this to be reviewed, but the amount of money of this seems excessive,” Bruch said during the Tuesday meeting.
Committee members Dean Reed and Paul Elliot voted to recommend the contract, as did committee chair Dan Di Guilio, a city councilman.
Three voted, with Bruch abstaining. Two members were not present.
The $5.4 million smart-meter project would replace the city’s 10,500 electric and water meters with devices that can be read remotely and receive information from utility staff.
The installation of the new devices, however, has encountered delays as the city deals with software integration issues between billing software and that of Mueller Systems, the Massachusetts-based firm installing the meters under contract with the city.
About 3,100 of the devices have been installed so far on Port Angeles homes and businesses, with 250 transmitting so city and Mueller staffers can test the devices’ software.
“We are not installing any additional meters; we’re only continuing with the testing [of the] existing meters that have been installed,” City Manager Dan McKeen said.
The proposed contract with West Monroe Partners was brought before the Utility Advisory Committee for consideration after council members decided at their Oct. 1 meeting that the agreement needed more discussion.
City staff had brought the contract request, then to be worth no more than $99,000, to council members for approval outright.
The contract came before the council two weeks after city residents opposed to smart meters nearly packed the Sept. 17 council meeting to voice their concerns over the devices.
At Tuesday’s advisory committee meeting, McKeen said city staff cut the proposed contract amount through reducing in-person visits, relying instead on video and teleconferencing.
David South, a senior manager with West Monroe Partners, told advisory committee members via phone that his staff would take between six to 10 weeks to assess the city’s smart-meter project, figure out what is at the root of the delays and provide a report detailing possible alternatives with associated costs.
Bruch said she would have liked to see the city go out to bid for the contract with West Monroe Partners and asked whether that’s something that can be done now.
“I would love to see if we have options,” Bruch said.
Craig Fulton, the city’s public works and utilities director, said the bid process alone would have taken between six to eight weeks.
Byron Olson, the city’s chief financial officer, said the city’s payments to Mueller have ranged between $20,000 and $75,000 per month, adding that the city cannot afford to wait much longer before a way forward for the smart-meter project can be developed.
“We cannot be here another three, six, nine months down the road,” Olson said.
Fulton said he feels West Monroe Partners offers unique expertise in smart-meter systems.
“We are getting professionals who know the business,” Fulton said.
“And I think with West Monroe, we just can’t look at the cost.”
Di Guilio said he shared Bruch’s concerns about not going out for bid, adding that he cannot be sure if West Monroe’s price is high or low.
“My first thought [at seeing the price] was, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and ‘gosh’ wasn’t the word I used, believe me,” Di Guilio said.
“If we were to do this all over again, I would completely agree with you,” Di Guilio told Bruch later in the meeting.
He added, however, that now is the time to trust that city staff presented advisory committee members with the best option in West Monroe Partners.
Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.