On an evening when impassioned addresses about health care benefit changes again dominated the time, the Independence City Council also ended its controversial smart meter project.

The council Monday voted 6-1 to adopt the initiative petition prohibiting the city for executing a contract on Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) – or “smart meters” – for the city's water and electric utilities. After a contract had been approved in April by a 4-3 vote, citizens had gathered more than 5,000 signatures in a month to put the matter to public vote, leaving the council a choice of approving a ballot measure or adopting the petition.

That vote didn't elicit quite as much reaction as some of the speakers who pleaded with the council not to adopt the health care change for retirees as proposed in the 2019-20 fiscal year budget – specifically, bidding the coverage for post-65 retirees, who are covered by Medicare, to Blue KC for supplemental group Medicare coverage.

City Manager Zach Walker said after the meeting that he will recommend getting rid of the proposed changes for current employees and pre-65 retirees. The latter one involved shifting pre-age-65 retirees shifting from an 80-20 employer-employee premium split to 50-50 over the course of three years. As initially proposed, the health care changes would save the city $7 million annually, addressing a projected $3.6 million shortfall in the general fund. Monday marked the first reading of the proposed city budget (which by rule could not include the new recommendations), and the second reading and vote is scheduled for June 17.

Health care talk

Mayor Eileen Weir's predecessor, Don Reimal, said the proposed change for post-65 retirees, rather than continuing to provide the benefits previously promised to them, he feels like he has betrayed their trust.

As health issues have severely softened his voice, Reimal's wife Jo read Don's prepared statement. Reimal said he and previous city manager sometimes faced similar budget dilemmas and “we always chose to find another way.” Furthermore, he said, he has not been impressed with Blue KC's work as an insurance provider from what he's witnessed.

“I implore you not to make liars and betrayers out of those who came before you,” he said. “I know you are better people than this.”

Former firefighter Henry Carner said retirees like him “submit that a deal is a deal” and that widows would be devastated by a cost-share change in health care.

The retirees, he said, don't want to fight with City Hall and have tried to be diplomatic in talking about the changes, and starting a fight “would be costly to both sides.”

A few speakers said the city's health care fund is solvent enough that changes aren't needed beyond the recommended eight percent premium increase.

One of them, retired police officer Bob Sorensen said he wondered how legal the proposed change would be given that he signed papers saying he could continue to have health insurance from the city.

“It doesn't need to be a legal issue,” he said. “It needs to be an ethical issue of what is right and wrong.

“The money is there, just a matter of where it is spent.”

“It's been brought to you how many people make decisions on their retirement based on that promise,” retired firefighter Chris Rohrs said. “We weren't known for our high wages, we were known for our benefits, and that's what we worked for.”

Retired police officer Mike Johann said a previous council made a mistake with the Bass Pro Shop development that hampered the city budget for years, and this council would make a mistake for its successors if the retiree health care change goes through.

“When you grew up, you were known by your word,” he said. “That's your integrity; that makes you. If you go back on your word, you'll forever by known as a council with no integrity.

“We don't need any more bad decisions, like Bass Pro. I don't want this council to be known as the council that made that one bad decision.”

Next week's council study session is expected to be devoted to the health care benefit changes in the budget, with representatives from health care providers explaining the current and proposed benefits for employees and retirees.

“I want to know what everybody is paying,” Council Member Scott Roberson said. “I want the facts.”

Walker said that with rolled back proposals will mean cutting $1.4 million in new spending from the general fund finding $270,000 in other cuts throughout the general fund, which covers the city offices that are not utilities. The city's three utilities are covered by their own enterprise funds.

No smart meters

When Council Member Curt Dougherty brought back the resolution for a smart meter contract last month and a 4-3 council majority approved it – a week after 5-2 majorities voted against two contracts – it took many people off guard but also represented the fourth time in 18 months the council had voted on smart meters. Some upset citizens soon started circulating a petition to put the matter on the ballot, and the council voted to delay the contract pending the petition results.

Two weeks ago, the council indefinitely postponed an ordinance that would've put a smart meter vote on the Aug. 6 ballot – one that Council Member Tom Van Camp had introduced in case the petition failed to gain enough signatures. Dougherty was the lone dissenting vote Monday in prohibiting AMI.

Many utilities around Independence have installed smart meters over the years. The city spent about $500,000 on consulting fees for the project and had set aside funds in the water and Power & Light budgets for the $29.45 million contract with Core & Main. Analysts project the city could realize $44 million in savings over a couple decades by installing smart meters.

Per the city charter, the council cannot reconsider an ordinance adopted by an initiative petition for a full year, except by unanimous council approval.