Consultant sees improvements in KC Water Services Deptartment

Customers have long described Water Services as among Kansas City’s most dysfunctional municipal departments.

But a consultant said Tuesday the organization is finally starting to act more like a professional utility.

Retired Kansas City Power & Light President Bill Downey was hired nearly a year ago as a $250-per-hour consultant to bolster the Water Department’s lackluster performance.

Now, he told the City Council, “I think we’ve come a long way.” He outlined major improvements to the department’s customer service and pipeline repair efforts.

“Answering the phone, and repair and restoration,” he said, “were symptoms of a broader set of issues.”

For too long, Water Service customers endured endless waits on hold when they called with a question or complaint about their bill. Or they watched water run down their street day after day from leaky pipes that took seemingly forever to fix. Or they endured hours and days without water because of water main breaks. All the while, they saw rates skyrocket to fix a poorly maintained system.

City Manager Troy Schulte and others said they couldn’t continue to tolerate substandard service while charging 170,000 retail customers more and more money. So Schulte drafted Downey at the first of this year to bring in an outside utility expert’s perspective.

“In every element of the business, we’ve been focusing on building competency,” Downey told Schulte, Mayor Sly James and other City Council members on Tuesday.

Among the improvements that managers described:

• A beefed-up call center. Customer service agents answer most calls within 30 seconds, and cases that require research are closed much more quickly than in the past.

• Faster fixes. Ninety percent of critical main breaks are repaired within 24 hours, when it often used to take 48 hours or more. Street restorations now generally take less than 20 days, when they used to take months.

• Better engineering. A mandated disinfection program that was expected to cost $140 million came in on time and $40 million under budget. The department is also more systematically repairing or replacing broken valves, hydrants and mains.

• New hires. The department has filled more than 100 crucial vacancies.

“We need to make sure we offer customers the same experience they get from other utilities,” department communications manager Kip Peterson told the council.

Downey said the department still has a lot to do to improve its business processes and long-range planning.