City council members take sides in flap over $12 million contract

When the city must increase water costs, it is best that someone answer the water department phones.

That dynamic plays in a political conflict over a $12 million, no-bid water services department contract.

The entire city council heard arguments Thursday on the controversial no-bid contract for the customer service improvement work.

The water department recommends the contract for two years of work go to the Chicago firm, West Monroe Partners LLC.

It involves new software and training and more to improve call center operations, billing, and meter and field services.

Councilman John Sharp, while praising the department for recent improvements in answering calls and fixing broken pipes, contends the contract work is not unique and should be routinely put out to bid.

“If we say this is unique, what isn’t?” he asked. “If we say this is unique it opens a Pandora’s Box” (of more non-bidding contracts with implications of good-old-boy contacts and corruption).

Terry Leeds, water services director, said the Chicago firm previously worked with the department assessing what needed to be done and has the expertise to do all the work.

Putting it out to bid would take another six months, he said.

Councilman Dick Davis said, “I really think we have a chance to hurt ourselves if we back off now and start all over.”

Councilwoman Cindy Circo noted that they have leaned on the water department to improve customer service and it is moving quickly to do it.

Councilwoman Melba Curls had one blunt question on behalf of her constituents: “Is this going to make our water bills go even higher?”

No, Leeds said, with a long explanation. This will come out of general operations and it is capital improvement costs for things like new water mains that send bills higher, he said.

“OK,” Curls said, “if you say so.”

Sharp said of Leeds’ explanation. “That is the greatest spin I’ve ever heard on why a $12 million contract is not a big deal.”

But it is a big deal, he said. “My concern is about the process.”

The council is scheduled to vote on the contract next week.

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