Port Angeles City Council aims to end ‘smart’ meter project contract

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — City staff will begin negotiations on ending a contract with the company the city has paid $1.6 million so far to install “smart” meters, the City Council decided Tuesday night.

The council voted 5-1, with council members Lee Whetham opposed and Patrick Downie absent, to authorize a “standstill” agreement with Atlanta-based Mueller Systems.

The agreement halts all work on the delayed smart electric and water meter project and starts a 60-day clock for negotiating a mutual termination of the city’s contract with Mueller.

Questions of whether smart meters already installed in the city will stay in place and how the city would recoup money spent on the project so far would be part of negotiations with Mueller, city Public Works and Utilities Director Craig Fulton said.

This includes how much money the city would try to recoup from Mueller, Fulton added.

The contract with Mueller is $4.4 million and includes the cost of smart meters.

“The funding aspect and the replacement of current meters will be the critical and important topic of discussion during negotiations,” Fulton said.

Smart meters are designed to transmit water and electricity usage data wirelessly from homes and businesses to City Hall and receive information from city utility staff.

They replace analog meters now in use. Analog meters now are outdated, staff has said, but the smart meters could be replaced with digital “dumb” meters that would not transmit.

Keep project?

Will the city continue to pursue installation of smart meters even when the present contract is terminated?

Fulton has said moving forward with new meters of some type in the future would require further council discussion and consideration.

The city has estimated the total cost of the smart meter project at about $4.9 million. The portion not set aside to pay Mueller funds city software upgrades.

The council also approved 5-1 a contract amendment not to exceed $140,000 with West Monroe Partners, the city consultant that evaluated the smart meter project in October, for technical support during the city’s contract termination negotiations with Mueller.

“They know where Mueller might have failed and has failed, and [that] gives us a lot stronger negotiating position,” Fulton told council members Tuesday night.

Go to court

In casting the sole “no” vote against both the agreement and the contract amendment, Whetham said he supported going to court over the $4.9 million smart meter project, which has been delayed by roughly 2 years.

The city declared Mueller in breach of contract in January, citing a bevy of software integration issues between the city’s billing software and that of Mueller.

“I can’t support this. I’d like to immediately proceed to court with this,” Whetham said at the meeting.

“The $140,000, in my opinion, is going to be a gamble by the citizens with taxpayer money.”

City Attorney Bill Bloor said the standstill agreement would not prevent the city from suing Mueller if a mutual termination agreement cannot be reached.

Councilwoman Sissi Bruch said she thought the money paid to West Monroe would be useful both if the mutual termination moves forward and if the matter is ultimately brought to court.

“So it’s not lost,” she said.

Opposition to meters

City and county residents opposing the project have attended multiple council meetings since September to voice concerns over privacy and potential negative health impacts of the electromagnetic energy the smart meters would use to communicate with City Hall.

The City Council vote came after smart meter opponents turned up once again to voice their opposition to the project during the public comment period of Tuesday’s meeting.

Melvina Worman told council members she lives in Sequim but is concerned about the smart meters because she has family in Port Angeles and owns a rental property in the city.

“It would just behoove you to not spend any more money on these, and I hope and pray you can get out of this contract,” she said.

“Perhaps it’s just time to call it quits.”

Not smart

City resident Dick Pilling — a real estate agent and chairman of the Clallam County Republican Party, who described himself as a “recovering engineer” — said he has not been persuaded by the smart meter opponents’ arguments raising health and privacy concerns.

“I am also against the smart meters for one simple reason: They ain’t smart,” Pilling said.

“They don’t work. They never have.”

About 2,100 smart electricity meters and 1,200 smart water meters have been paid for and installed on residences and businesses across the city. A couple dozen also are in storage.

All are still being read manually.

Council members in October approved a $86,500 contract with West Monroe Partners to study the delayed smart meter project.

‘Imminent failure’

In February, the Chicago-based firm determined the project was in “imminent failure” without significant changes made by Mueller.

In supporting the West Monroe contract amendment, Councilman Dan Gase said Tuesday the project delays might not have happened if an expert firm like West Monroe had been brought in to manage the project.

“We need these experts,” Gase said.

“I want these smart meters out of here.”

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Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at jschwartz@peninsula
dailynews.com.

Last modified: June 04. 2014 5:42PM
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