New details about controversial $12 million KCMO contract uncovered by 41 Action News investigation

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A 41 Action News investigation is revealing new information about a controversial $12 million contract for the Kansas City Water Services Department. Documents obtained from an open-records request show the cost of the customer service project has nearly doubled in recent months.

The contract has already faced scrutiny because it is being awarded to a Chicago-based consulting firm, West Monroe Partners, without a competitive bidding process.

City leaders have defended the selection, citing the firm's "unique and specialized" experience with similar customer service overhauls around the country. However, critics have questioned the process and whether taxpayers are getting the best deal.

In May, emails and attachments from Water Department leaders show the original estimate for the customer service overhaul was nearly half the cost at $6.7 million.

The revelation came in a one-page summary of the anticipated project from Customer Service Officer Kathleen Whalen to Director Terry Leeds.

"(West Monroe Partners) would take an approach that would encompass all the WSD processes that affect the customer service experience including billing and metering," wrote Whalen. "They have proposed a three-year approach to implementing the initiatives that WSD believes would have the most impact on improving customers' experience with us."

At the time of the estimate, West Monroe Partners had just finished a six-week assessment of all aspects of the Water Department. To date, the firm has completed more than $300,000 of consulting work for the Water Department this year.

During a conference call with 41 Action New on Friday, Water Department spokeswoman Jennifer Kincaid and Kansas City Communications Director Danny Rotert defended the project.

They said the earlier estimate in May would not have fixed all the customer services issues plaguing the department. They added the increased scope of the project came at the request of city leaders, not the recommendation of the consulting firm.

"The earlier estimate did not include an entire upgrade from your meter to your bill," Rotert said. "It would not have fixed issues with sending bills to dead people."

Kincaid acknowledged the department's rollout of the project could have been handled better, but said customers will be much happier with the final result.

The $6.7 million estimate included an itemized breakdown of all the different initiatives for the project. 41 Action News requested a similar document for the $12 million project so costs could be compared, but was told it was not an open record because it involves negotiations for a contract that has yet to be executed.

Councilman John Sharp, who has been a vocal critic of the process, said the cost fluctuation is concerning.

"We're not a privately owned company where we can just hand out contracts to good old boys and our friends and associates," Sharp told 41 Action News. "We're a governmental agency. We have to have competition to make sure the taxpayers are getting the best bang for their buck."

A council committee delayed a vote on the contract last week.

Kincaid said leaders at the Water Department and representatives from West Monroe Partners will be at the council meeting on Thursday to answer questions.

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

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