Seattle City Council members questioned City Light and Public Utilities officials Monday about cost overruns on a billing-system project, including some overruns the council signed off on last year.
Seattle City Council members Monday demanded more transparency from City Light and Public Utilities officials, saying they were blindsided last week by news that a new billing system for utilities customers will launch a year late and $34 million over budget.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant accused Mayor Ed Murray of possibly burying cost overruns last year when he needed the council to sign off on some of them.
“You took such pains to hide this information,” she said to Murray officials briefing the council. “I want to challenge this idea … that the council consciously approved this.”
The project to build a new billing and customer-information system, approved in 2012 under then-Mayor Mike McGinn, was initially budgeted at $66 million. The system was scheduled to launch last October.
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But with the project running behind, the council in November approved a new budget of $85 million and an April launch date, City Light and Public Utilities said in a news release Thursday announcing additional cost increases.
The launch is now being pushed back to this fall, with the project expected to cost at least $100 million due to changes in scope and extra testing.
Sawant, who chairs the council’s energy committee, said Monday she didn’t understand the council was approving millions in cost overruns last November because Murray didn’t highlight them clearly in his proposed capital-improvements program.
“Phrasing equivalent to cost overruns” was absent from the 879-page document, she said. Sawant said she wants the mayor to appear at her next committee meeting.
Murray officials pushed back, saying there was no attempt to deceive. Documents presented to the council on Nov. 2 showed major capital-improvement program changes for 2016, including someinformation about the billing system launching later than expected, with cost increases.
“With all due respect, I don’t agree with the word you used — hidden,” Public Utilities Director Ray Hoffman told Sawant. “There was no intent to hide the ball.”
But Hoffman and Ben Noble, the mayor’s budget director, agreed they could have done more to make sure council members understood what they were approving.
“We did call it out but we did not do a good enough job of raising attention to it the way we could have and should have,” Noble said.
Other council members, including Lisa Herbold and M. Lorena González, expressed concern about the billing-system project being allowed to slip under the council’s radar. González was more conciliatory than Sawant, however.
“I don’t think that there was any sort of malice or intent,” she said. “But I do think there was a significant error and miscommunication that was made … What have we learned from this particular experience? How will it be rectified moving forward?”
There was less discussion Monday about why the billing-system project is taking longer and costing more than expected.
Council President Bruce Harrell requested details on the project’s changes in scope. The changes are related to identity protection for customers, regulatory requirements and testing, officials have said.
Councilmember Rob Johnson asked why the city’s contractor for the project isn’t eating the cost overruns.
The contractor, PricewaterhouseCoopers, has “taken some pain,” Hoffman replied. But in-house workers are doing a large part of the work on their own, so the city must shoulder part of the burden, as well, he said.
Herbold requested details on how rates for electricity, water and waste-collection customers would be affected by the cost increases.
Last week, officials said the rates wouldn’t change much because City Light and Public Utilities plan to use savings on other projects to balance their books.
The new billing system, provided by Oracle, will replace a 15-year-old system, officials said. Because technology is changing quickly, Seattle will be lucky if the new system lasts 10 years, City Light General Manager Larry Weis said.