Spending board delays $5.4M water billing contract
Keenly aware of citizen anger over water rate hikes, Council President Brandon Scott and Mayor Jack Young vote to defer a pricey consultant contract.
Above: Baltimore water bills have increased steadily – and so have the payments to the company the city uses for its “smart meter” water billing system. (Mark Reutter)
Baltimore’s spending board today postponed action on a $5.4 million extension of a contract to provide support services for customer water billing, acting at the request of Councilman Bill Henry who called the increase “problematic.”
The Board of Estimates had been scheduled to vote on the latest slug of money for Atlanta-based Itineris North America, which was enlisted as part of the Department of Public Works’ switch-over to a UMAX water billing system.
The initial contract – for $8.4 million – was approved by the board in October 2014. Its purpose was to assist DPW staff in customer operations, dispute resolution, quality assurance, user acceptance testing and other back-office operations.
Since then, the contract has steadily ballooned – nearly tripling to $22.1 million to date – and was set to grow to $27.6 million upon today’s board approval.
UPDATE: Young calls for audit of water billing system.
Henry, who has announced a run for the citywide position of comptroller, called for a pause to take a closer look at the agreement.
“This contract increase would now put us nearly $19 million over the initial contract,” Henry said in a letter sent yesterday to City Council President Brandon Scott.
“I believe that the Board of Estimates should have as much information as possible before they decide if the city can and should support this contract extension.”
Henry noted that a financial audit of the Department of Public Works was due to be publicly released last week, but did not appear on last week’s or today’s board agenda. Until it is presented to the board and the City Council, Henry said the city should “delay the vote on the contract renewal.”
It’s unclear when the DPW audit will be released and what it might show, but a review by The Brew of Itineris prices under the contract indicates some heavy expenditures to date.
DPW agreed to pay for up to 11 Itineris consultants, each at an hourly rate of $150. In addition, all out-of-pocket expenses for the consultants are reimbursed.
Source: “The company could have tried to train city employees, but instead they decided to bring in their own people.”
Between August 2016 and August 2017, Itineris was allowed up to $3,632,287.50 for its work. That included a shade under $3 million ($2,988,000) for “time and materials” and another $644,287.50 for travel.
Among the travel expenses were $177,412.50 for airfare (presumably between Atlanta and Baltimore), $280,125 for lodging (presumably in Baltimore), and $74,700 for car rentals and taxicabs, as shown below:
A person knowledgeable of the contract’s terms, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said, “The travel part isn’t wonderful, but it’s part of standard business practice. The company could have tried to train city employees, but instead they decided to bring in their own people.”
Today’s request was to cover costs associated with bringing Baltimore County water customers into the new billing system and transferring “additional UMAX-knowledgeable resources from Itineris to support management staff with post-system acceptance maintenance.”
Keenly aware of citizen anger over water billing costs, both Scott and Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young voted to deferred the contract without comment.
Both men have announced their candidacy for mayor in 2020.
The contract was originally developed by Rudy Chow, the DPW director whose forced retirement was announced last week. Chow was absent from today’s board meeting, attending a water agencies management conference in Newport, RI.