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Seattle council member questions transparency on delayed, multimillion-dollar billing system

SEATTLE — The head of the Seattle City Council’s energy committee questioned the transparency and accountability of Seattle Public Utilities and Seattle City Light Monday morning as the departments ask for $15 million to fund a new, delayed customer-billing system.

”Is this the end of it? Or are there going to be more cost overruns in this budget?” Councilwoman Kshama Sawant asked.

The system, called the New Customer Information System (NCIS), will serve about 400,000 customers, who will pay for most of it through long-term bonds.

It was originally budgeted at $66 million, with a launch date of October 2015. Last fall, that cost was extended to $85 million as part of the city’s annual budget, with a launch date of April 2016. On March 31, City Light and SPU announced it was going to cost at least $100 million and launch sometime in the fall because of the need for more testing.

Sawant said she only found out about the cost overruns last week.

“I think the timing is very much related to the fact that KIRO-TV's public disclosure request went live and they were having to make that information available publicly anyway,” she said, “and that's when we found out.”

KIRO 7 filed a request on March 6 and received records on March 30, a day before the utilities’ news release on the delays. SPU spokesperson Andy Ryan said the timing is not connected at all. Ryan said both City Light and SPU were uncertain whether the system’s launch needed to be delayed until recently.

“Clearly there was no intent whatsoever to hide this information in any way from any of the council members,” City Light spokesperson Scott Thomsen said.

Sawant said the delays and cost overruns weren’t made clear during the city’s budget discussions last fall.

“If your project went $20 million over budget, you should shout it off the rooftops,” she said.

It’s something the city’s budget director, Ben Noble, acknowledged on Monday.

“The budget comes through with literally volumes,” he said. “There was information there. We could have done a much better job of being proactive in pointing out what was going on.”

SPU said the complexity of billing systems like NCIS is why the city is undertaking several more months of testing, at the cost of $2.5 million to $3.5 million a month.

“This is a foundational computer system that works with more than 40 applications. It’s complex work to get them to all talk to each other correctly,” Thomsen said, referencing other cities, like Los Angeles, that launched their billing systems too early, costing millions in uncollected revenue. “We have made a conscious decision to get that work done right before pushing it out into work.”

Sawant said the additional testing may be justified, but she wants more information on the expenditures and why they’re needed.

“The ratepayers deserve to know,” she said. “I am asking the mayor to appear in my energy and environment committee to answer to the public.”

The Mayor's Office called Sawant's invitation “political grandstanding” in which Mayor Ed Murray will not participate.

A spokesperson told KIRO 7 that Murray will send down directors from the budget department, SPU and City Light to answer any questions. A statement said in part, “I am frustrated that our utilities must delay the implementation of this new billing system. It is critical, however, that the experience of Seattle customers is seamless as we transition later this year. The rising cost of this project is very disappointing, but I have directed the utilities to complete the project within currently adopted customer utility rates.”

Seattle City Light and SPU will need to get council approval for the $15 million or more it expects the additional testing to cost.