By LESLIE COLLINS
August 28, 2013
With a 10-3 vote Aug. 22, the Kansas City City Council approved the controversial $12 million contract to improve customer service in the water department.
The hefty price tag raised eyebrows among Kansas Citians, including several on the city council. City Council members John Sharp, Melba Curls and Jermaine Reed voted against awarding the $12 million contract to Chicago-based West Monroe Partners.
“None of us opposed the water department’s efforts to improve customer service,” Sharp said. “I certainly commend the department for that. I think we all are very pleased to see them take substantial efforts to improve their customer service.”
Sharp said he does have an issue with a no-bid contract, however. In order to forgo the bidding process for contracts exceeding $150,000, the city manager must prove that the contractor provides a unique and specialized service.
While searching through the West Monroe website, Sharp said Monroe lists its competitors as ranging from niche consulting firms to some of the largest management technology consulting firms in the world. Sharp said he wasn’t convinced that West Monroe was the only company that could fulfill Kansas City’s water department needs.
“My concern is about the process,” he said. “I think it sets a terribly bad precedent.”
Competitive bidding ensures taxpayers receive the “best bang for their buck” and ensures the city doesn’t award contracts based on “good ol’ boy networks,” he said.
Water Services Department Director Terry Leeds said the department talked to other firms, but West Monroe was able to pull together the “entire package.”
The water department’s current customer information and billing system software and hardware had become outdated and was quickly approaching non support status, said Kathy Whalen, who oversees customer service in the water department.
Instead of scrapping the billing system and starting from scratch, which would have cost about $40 million, West Monroe found a way to update the system and integrate it with other software programs, City Manager Troy Schulte said.
“This (West Monroe contract) is a significantly cheaper alternative than what we thought we were going into,” Schulte said. “In the context of what we were originally facing, we have done a good job of refining the scope down and maximizing the resources.”
Schulte also pointed out that the $12 million, two-year contract, accounts for less than 2 percent of the city’s annual water department revenue.
“That’s the greatest spin I’ve ever heard on why a $12 million contract is a good deal,” Sharp said.
West Monroe conducted an initial assessment of the water department in March and quoted a $6.7 million scope with 33 initiatives. However, Leeds said the water department then expanded and redefined the scope, creating 21 initiatives for improving customer service, totaling $12 million. About 75 percent of the $12 million will be spent on technology upgrades and training, Leeds said. Local minority business participation will include ECCO Select, $1.3 million (WBE); Tshibanda, $708,000 (MBE); and Bellewether, $504,000 (MBE).
Both Sharp and Reed cited that while the contract exceeded Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE) goals, the Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) goals fell short. City Council member Russ Johnson stressed that WBE and MBE participation are goals, not requirements.
According to the water department, customer service will improve at the call center with less wait time, quicker and more accurate responses, solving issues on the first phone call and more knowledgeable and friendlier customer service representatives. Other improvements will include better billing accuracy, more convenient ways to conduct business, like enhanced phone and website options, and convenient and reliable scheduling for field service appointments.