A final vote on Independence's proposed smart meter project will have to wait until next year.
The City Council voted Monday to postpone votes for the Advanced Metering Infrastructure project – in which the city utilities' analog meters would be replaced with digital “smart meters” – for six months. The new date, April 16, 2018, would be after the next city elections.
The proposed $29.7 million contract with Core & Main for the meters, to be paid out over 10 years, would be the largest city-approved project since the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena. The $2.6 million project management contract with West Monroe Partners also was postponed.
Mayor Eileen Weir motioned for the postponements, citing a desire to investigate and perhaps address some of the citizen concerns expressed before the vote, and she referred the AMI project back to the Public Utilities Advisory Board and the Advisory Board of Health. Those concerns ranged from fire hazards and radio wave effects on health to higher utility bills, the lack of an opt-out and privacy concerns from the meters' cloud-based data being hacked.
Weir said six months felt reasonable to further research the project and get some answers without dragging it out too long. The fact it falls right after her announced mayoral re-election bid was coincidental and not the first thing that crossed her mind, she said.
“We've given this a lot of thought, and we certainly have invested with your resources,” she told citizens before the vote, referring to earlier studies and the PUAB's time.
City Manager Zach Walker said Core & Main had agreed to hold its bid price for six months if necessary. Power & Light Acting Director Andy Boatright said West Monroe was not able to provide an immediate answer regarding its contract.
The council's vote to postpone was 5-2, with Curt Dougherty and Tom Van Camp objecting. Dougherty said he hoped to have a local contractor serve as the project manager and the project start “with a clean slate,” perhaps reviewing the runner-up bid from Honeywell or getting Core & Main's bid tweaked.
He later said the smart meter initiative is a worthy project, and acknowledged that initial financial analysis for the project was promising, but the council should take more time to make the most-informed decision.
“There's got to be some way we can hit a happy medium,” Dougherty said.
Van Camp said he preferred to scrap the project, but Council Member Karen DeLuccie countered that given all the work put in by staff and citizens, “I don't want to just throw it out with five minutes.”
Brent Schondelmeyer of the citizens group Indy Energy, the lone speaker who had signed up beforehand, reiterated the group's support of smart meters but said that given the cost it could be helpful to take more time.
What would be “truly regrettable,” he said, is if the council elected to go with another, higher-bidding vendor, as that would disregard previous work and “erode public trust.”
The other citizens who raised concerns were allowed to sign up and speak after the council voted to suspend the rules.
The runner-up vendor for the AMI project, Honeywell, had a bid just less than $35 million.
The city started exploring the project about two years ago, at the council's urging, and Boatright said the projected three-year implementation costs of about $25.3 million are more than $5 million below projections from a year ago. The city could break even in eight years on the project, he said, as the utilities would realize savings or benefits from staff reallocations, less vehicle expenses and replacement costs, reduced theft and possibly increased revenue from more accurate readings. The project would be paid with cash on hand, and thus not a rate increase, city officials say.
Customers would benefit from better outage response times, their ability to track their energy usage more closely – including through a smartphone – and the utilities possibly staving off rate increases because of the savings they realize.
Locally, Kansas City Power & Light and the Board of Public Utilities in Kansas City, Kansas, have both installed smart meters with their customers.