By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News
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The council Tuesday night voted 4-2 — with council members Sissi Bruch and Dan Di Guilio opposed — to send the proposed contract with West Monroe Partners to the city’s Utility Advisory Committee, an advisory body to the council, for a recommendation.
The proposal is that the Chicago-based firm would evaluate the city’s delayed advanced metering infrastructure project, also referred to as AMI or smart meters, and develop potential alternatives.
“One of those alternatives may be we don’t move forward with the AMI project,” City Manager Dan McKeen said Wednesday.
“All of this depends on the evaluation the city is requesting to go forward with.”
Utility Advisory Committee members are expected to discuss the contract request at their 3 p.m. Tuesday meeting in council chambers at City Hall, 321 E. Fifth St.
The $5.4 million smart meter project would replace the city’s roughly 10,500 home and business water and electricity meters with devices that can be read remotely and receive information from city utility staffers.
Five residents out of an audience of about 30 spoke in opposition to the consultant contract in particular and smart meters in general Tuesday.
“I’m really adamant about stopping the cost of consulting,” Michael Brown told council members.
Completion of the smart meter project has been delayed by more than a year as the city grapples with integration issues between its utility software and that of Mueller Systems, the contractor installing the meters.
City staff recommended hiring a consultant to present possible solutions to the delays the city has experienced with the implementation of the devices.
“The $99,000 seems excessive to me for this particular project,” Di Guilio said Tuesday.
“I’m reluctant at this point to support it, based on the amount of the contract.”
Bruch said she was not sure West Monroe Partners’ evaluation and presentation of possible alternatives would include options other than continuing the smart meter project in some form.
“I want the whole broad set of options, not just how do we fix our smart meters,” Bruch said.
Phil Lusk, the city’s deputy director of power and telecommunication systems, said Wednesday the city has so far paid Mueller about $2 million of the total $5.4 million approved for the smart meter project.
The total amount includes the contingency funds the city would use to pay the firm if council members ultimately approve that contract, Lusk said.
Opponents to the project nearly filled chambers during a Sept. 17 meeting and raised varied concerns about the devices, including the safety of the radio frequency, or RF, energy they will use to wirelessly transmit electric and water usage data.
At Tuesday’s meeting, resident Jeff Breitbach said he was not in favor of the smart meter project and could not understand why the city would spend money on a consultant to evaluate a project that appears to not be working.
“If it doesn’t work, you box it up and send it back,” Breitbach said.
McKeen compared the city’s status on the project to someone knowing his or her car is malfunctioning but needing a mechanic to identify the specific problems and provide a way forward.
“[You] generally go to a mechanic, [who] provides you with direction,” McKeen said.
City Attorney Bill Bloor told council members the city does have legal options in addressing the project delays but said litigation could cost more than hiring West Monroe Partners.
An alternative from the consultant could end up being the least-costly option to the city, Bloor said.
Resident Bill Atkinson, a retired electrical engineer, told council members he supports smart meter installation, though he encouraged the city to send notice to Mueller and have it prove why it should not be fired.
“When you get your knickers in a twist about smart meters, think about the smartphones you have next to your heads on the way out of here,” Atkinson said.
Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.