Questions raised about single vendor for water meters

The Sarasota County Commission discusses business during a regular session. Photo by Norman Schimmel

Voicing concerns about locking themselves into a five-year contract for technology available from just one vendor, the Sarasota County Commission voted 3-2 June 26 to approve a three-year, $2.7 million contract to allow continued replacement of water meters that can be read automatically by handheld devices.

The contract also called for the option of two, one-year renewals, for a total cost of about $4.5 million.

Chairwoman Christine Robinson and Commissioner Joe Barbetta cast the “No” votes. Barbetta argued the county could find itself in the same sort of difficult situation it had encountered several years ago with a contract for the Information Technology Department: “We’re stuck five or six years down the road when we need something and only one person can supply it.”

Robinson questioned why the matter was on the consent agenda, when she said a more expansive discussion would have been preferable.

However, Commissioner Nora Patterson pointed to a termination cause in the contract that she felt served as an adequate remedy for the immediate concerns.

Commissioner Jon Thaxton said he thought the idea of the future discussion was a good one, but “I just don’t see any advantage of prolonging the contract [vote].”

Robinson and Barbetta did join their fellow commissioners in approving a second motion: a request for staff to make a future presentation on automated meter-reading technology and various options that might be available to the county.

When Barbetta first raised the point about a single vendor for the water meters, Jody Kirkman, the county’s utilities director, said staff thoroughly had researched the question of whether any vendor except Badger Meter had equipment that could be merged with the Badger meters the county already was using. None could, Kirkman said.

A June 26 memo to the County Commission from Theresa Connor, director of the county’s Environmental Utilities Department, says, “Presently, approximately 65% of the County’s meters are made up of brands other than Badger [automatic meter reading] meters. AMR meters offer the County a savings on operational maintenance and service calls, but also the ability to predict failures. Predictive maintenance is more cost efficient and provides a higher level of customer service.”

The memo adds, “The radio [frequency] read feature increases staff efficiencies, by reading more meters in less time and captures cost savings with less vehicle maintenance, reduced fuel costs and less emissions.”

Barbetta told Kirkman he also was concerned that staff had asked five other vendors “to submit bids, and “[they] got rejected.”

Kirkman responded that bids were not sought; instead, county staff had put out a request for information, instead of seeking actual bids.

George MacFarlane, general manager of business center operations, told the commissioners their points about rapid changes in all sorts of technology were valid. However, he said, every vendor with water meters that could be read automatically with handheld devices had a proprietary radio frequency signal.

He added, “We can’t find a handheld [reader] that picks up multiple signals from multiple vendors. … We’re hoping the handhelds will change … in three to five years.”

Then County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh pointed out that the proposed contract had a 30-day termination clause.

When Thaxton asked what grounds the county would have to have to execute that clause, MacFarlane told him, “There’s no penalty at all.”

DeMarsh added, “You pay for services rendered through the day of termination. It can be at any time.”

“It sounds as though we don’t have a choice [about the vendor], at this point, that makes any sense,” Patterson said.

“That’s the conclusion staff had as well,” MacFarlane told her.

‘A larger discussion’

“I’m not prepared to vote for this, because I think this needs a larger discussion,” Robinson said. “It’s a large amount of money, and we’re obligating ourselves to some things that I really think we need to understand the ramifications of better.”

When she asked for a motion, Thaxton made it, calling for approval of the contract as proposed.

Barbetta said he still wanted more information about other meter technology on the market.

Commissioner Carolyn Mason asked MacFarlane, “Would there be any harm in bringing this back at a later date?”

“Only to the extent that we’re running out of meters,” he told her. Nonetheless, he said, if the commission wanted to discuss the matter more fully before voting, “I’m completely at your disposal ….”

When Patterson then asked whether the termination clause could be exercised in the first year of the contract, MacFarlane said it that would be allowed.

“I don’t see why we can’t go ahead then and approve [the contract] and then have the discussion that everyone wants,” Patterson said.

In response to a request for comment, County Administrator Randall Reid told the board, “I don’t foresee the [staff] recommendation changing unless we go to having multiple meter providers.”

Referring to Badger’s equipment, Reid added, “It’s a well-thought-out meter device.”

When Mason asked how soon the technology discussion could be scheduled, Reid replied, “It would be coming back whenever you’d like.”

However, referring to staff, Reid pointed out, “They’re waiting for a technology that can read multiple types [of meters]. As you know, even Apple and Microsoft don’t [have compatible technology].”

“I would just like to know what the best practices are,” Barbetta said.

“Badger is probably the most well-known radio-frequency … meter assembly around,” MacFarlane said. It is used in the City of Venice and Charlotte and Pasco counties, he added.

When Patterson asked how quickly staff would be installing the approximately 45,000 new meters to be provided through the contract, MacFarlane told her county workers change out about 5,000 meters a year. “We’re talking about a five- to eight-year program, easily,” he said.

The board then took the split vote on the contract and the unanimous vote on the future discussion about the technology.