KCMO Water wants to spend big bucks on customer service, faces questions about $12M contract

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Kansas City's embattled Water Services Department wants to spend big bucks to improve its customer service experience, but is facing some questions about awarding the $12 million contract without a competitive bidding process.

On Wednesday, leaders at the department explained to a council committee why they are recommending approval of a contract with West Monroe Partners , a Chicago-based consulting firm.

"We know this is unusual for this size of a contract," Water Services Director Terry Leeds said.

Leeds said the preferred firm has unmatched experience in a wide variety of fields that would make it the top choice for the job. He said West Monroe has overseen similar customer service overhauls in other utilities and municipalities around the country.

The Kansas City project would include a new technology system, which hasn't been upgraded in a decade. The goal is to have faster response times, more accurate bills and efficient communication with residents.

Council member John Sharp was not convinced the city should skirt the bid process.

"I give a great deal of respect to the competence of our Water Department leadership, but you don't know for sure it will be the best proposal unless you see what else is out there," Sharp said.

Other council members like Mayor Pro Tem Cindy Circo disagreed, saying with water rates going up, customers deserve to see improvement as soon as possible.

Circo said there is not a Kansas City-based firm that could take the lead on the project, but added there would be local subcontractors involved with aspects of the implementation.

"We feel confident the product is worth the sole source," Circo said. "This team is tailored to what the needs of the project are. There are a lot of things we are addressing and when you spread that out over a two-year project, it's money well spent."

City law allows the city manager to waive the bid process for any contract, regardless of cost, if he determines things like there is "an imminent threat to public safety" or there is "only one source or no competition exists."

In the case of $12-million contract, City Manager Troy Schulte ruled that firm was "in the best interest of the City."

"This contractor has unique and specialized experience for this project because of their experience in performing not only large-scale utility and municipal system and customer service improvement implementations, but also projects across multiple industries," read the waiver obtained by 41 Action News .

41 Action News asked Leeds how he could assure taxpayers they are getting the best deal with no competitive bidding process.

"We have negotiated the project scope. It's a very defined scope and we have priced that scope out," Leeds said. "The City has a process available to it and we have followed the code of ordinances in making this recommendation."

The decision was held for a week, so details of the contract are still not publicly available.

41 Action News asked West Monroe and the Water Services Department for examples of similar customer service overhauls tackled in other cities. Leeds and others cited more than 50 projects around the country, but did not provide a specific instance.

Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@kshb.com. You can also follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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