The smart meter project apparently will happen in Independence – just not yet.
The City Council on Monday voted 4-3 against a $29.7 million contract with Core & Main that would have replaced analog utility meters with advanced meter infrastructure – digital meters that allow the power and water department to record ratepayers' usage remotely – over three years.
A $2.6 million project management contract with West Monroe Partners was postponed indefinitely, with an eye toward using a local contractor and in-house support instead at less than half the cost.
The smart meter project, which drew sharp objections from citizens concerned about fire and health safety, privacy, lack of an opt-out and potentially higher bills, had initially been considered last October, and the council voted to postpone the vote in order to better answer some of those concerns.
On Monday, Mayor Eileen Weir and council members Curt Dougherty, John Perkins and Tom Van Camp voted against the contract, though none said they were against the project. Chris Whiting, Karen DeLuccie and Scott Roberson voted for the contract.
Monday's vote was one of the last actions before Whiting completed his term as an at-large council member and departed; newly elected Mike Huff and was sworn in to replace him. Weir and at-large Council Member DeLuccie were sworn in for their second four-year terms.
Dougherty said he wanted to re-bid to assure that the city gets the best technology and that a labor agreement with regard to affected positions at Independence Power & Light would be ironed out.
“It's the way to go, but have we got the best system?” Dougherty said, adding later that the savings – city officials said the project as proposed could pay for itself in as little as eight years and save millions of dollar after that – “is too good to pass on.”
Perkins, citing the predominantly older housing stock in his northwest quadrant district, said he wanted to be sure the city got the safest and best product.
“I'm about 90 percent on this, maybe even 95 percent,” he said. “I think that's where we're going to move to.”
“We've studied it for two years,” DeLuccie said. “I'm ready to move forward.”
Roberson said he purchased a radio frequency sensor and used it at a family member's house with a Kansas City Power & Light smart meter. The only reading that registered was directly next to the meter outside, with nothing inside the house at the meter's location. The amount of radio waves emitted over a day pales compared with the average person's cell phone use, he said.
Before the council voted on the smart meter contract, Roberson had offered an opt-out amendment that he said could be open to change. It passed with a 4-3 vote – Perkins sided with those who voted for the contract – but ultimately proved moot.
“I wouldn't want to pick it apart here,” Van Camp said, “but I think we should have an opt-out, and I think the citizens can have a say in that.”
Weir said the council had received sound answers to many of their questions – that citizens’ fears are generally unwarranted – but she wanted to at least consider other implementation options. While the council has had this on its radar for two years, other cities have taken longer, she said. “I believe this technology will be deployed in the city,” the mayor said, adding that she would be against an opt-out in order to fully realize potential savings. “It is coming, and it is coming for a lot of good reasons.”
Weir and Roberson said that if the smart meter project leads to some higher bills, that would be because of more accurate readings.
At the end of the meeting, Roberson said the city shouldn't rush back into another bidding process, given that the one that produced Monday's proposed contract had been “perhaps the best bidding process the city has ever seen.”
Whiting said the smart meter vote, which took place in front of a standing-room-only crowd in the council chambers, made for a memorable last council meeting and thanked the city for having nurtured him and his daughters, adding that “I truly believe this city is trending in the right direction.
“What a night to go out on,” he said. “This is democracy in action.”
If there's one thing he's learned most, Whiting added, it's that “Reasonable people can hold wildly different viewpoints and still be reasonable people.”