Local consulting firms question cost of KCMO Water Department's $12 million customer service project

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The Chicago consulting firm recommended for a $12 million no-bid contract has already done thousands of dollars of analysis for the Kansas City Water Services Department this year, according to records obtained by 41 Action News.

At the same time, local consulting experts question the city's decision not to engage in a competitive bidding process to ensure taxpayers get the best price for the project.

On Wednesday, 41 Action News reported on the process surrounding the multi-million dollar customer service overhaul planned for the embattled Water Department.

City leaders acknowledged it was unusual to bypass competitive bidding for such a large project, but insisted West Monroe Partners possesses the "unique and specialized experience" to make it the best fit for the job.

When 41 Action News asked if a local consulting firm could take the lead on the project, both Water Services Director Terry Leeds and Mayor Pro Tem Cindy Circo said no such firm existed.

Michael Wheeler, owner of the Kansas City Consulting Group, questions that assessment.

"I haven't seen anything that was so unique and specialized that people in Kansas City couldn't do it," said Wheeler, who has 25 years of consulting experience. "My concern is that it's not competitive and the money flows away from Kansas City, and I really hate to see that happen as a citizen."

The two-year project will 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.

Department leaders say with water rates on the rise, fixing the customer service experience as soon as possible is critical.

West Monroe has already had a presence in Kansas City this year to evaluate the Water Services Department and to figure out where improvements and changes can be made.

A February contract and a May contract obtained by 41 Action News detail some of the objectives of more than $300,000 of consulting work by the firm. City leaders also waived the bidding process for both of those contracts.

Wheeler, who reviewed those contracts and viewed Wednesday's city meeting, said it is difficult to know if taxpayers are getting a fair price. He said the consulting groundwork performed by West Monroe earlier this year would allow the city to publish an extremely defined request for proposals (RFP).

"I really believe if it was bid competitively, this contractor would not come back at $12 million," Wheeler said. "I would pretty much bet on that."

On Wednesday, 41 Action News asked West Monroe and the Water Services Department for examples of similar customer service overhauls tackled in other cities.

None could be immediately provided, but on Friday, West Monroe sent a 17-page report with a list of references and projects around the country. One of the utilities was Kansas City Power & Light for consulting work performed in 2007 and 2008.

A Water Department spokeswoman said a lot of homework went into the decision to recommend West Monroe for the $12 million project manager.

"We feel very comfortable, and the important thing is our customers see results," said spokeswoman Jennifer Kincaid.

The contract is expected to be voted on by a city council finance committee on Wednesday.

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

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