12/02/2014 06:28 EST | Updated 02/01/2015 05:59 EST

Contract to recoup costs for smart-meter program doesn't add up: NDP

REGINA - Saskatchewan's Opposition says the government's plan to recoup money for a smart-meter program that was linked to at least eight fires doesn't add up.

The fires last summer prompted the province to order SaskPower to remove more than 100,000 of the electronic utility readers that had already been installed in homes.

The minister responsible for SaskPower said U.S. manufacturer Sensus is refunding $24 million for all the meters purchased, is crediting SaskPower another $18 million for new meters and providing an extra $5 million for research.

But NDP finance critic Trent Wotherspoon said Tuesday that the $18-million credit is contingent on maintaining the contract with Sensus and the government would forfeit its dollars if it used another company.

"This is a debacle, this is a mess," he said.

Minister Bill Boyd said there is a three-year time frame for Sensus to create a meter that satisfies the government's requirements according to the contract. This would include an independent evaluation to ensure the product's safety, he said.

At that point, the government could cut ties with the company and get the $18 million back, he said.

"(SaskPower) wanted to have a time frame so this couldn't go on forever," he said. "I think we're being as absolutely transparent as we possibly can be, it's a very, very complex situation."

Boyd said the government "is not entirely tied" to Sensus but there is "obviously an incentive to go with them."

Wotherspoon called for the provincial auditor to investigate the issue.

Saskatchewan's Crown Investment Corp. was directed to do a review after the fires. The investigation results found that rain water and contaminants getting into the meters appeared to contribute to them failing.

The report said that customer safety wasn't enough of a priority.

"In various parts of the province, eight meters failed catastrophically, melting or burning and, in some cases, damaging the sides of houses," the report said. The failures were not related to "hot sockets" or installation issues, it said.

The report also said SaskPower failed to look at the possibility that the meters could short out and catch fire.

It said that the utility looked at 359 returns and found that 18 smart meters were burned and no longer operational. Three more had high temperature errors, while 107 had display problems and 67 showed error codes.

Last month there was a ninth smart-meter failure after one of the devices overheated and melted. A SaskPower spokesman said the company is working to remove smart meters as quickly as possible. The company is planning to have all meters removed by March 15.

Wotherspoon said the NDP is still calling for Boyd's resignation.

"His story changes by the day," Wotherspoon said. "Government claimed and boasted that they were getting the dollars back, it's clear that that's just not the case.

"We still haven't, of course, accounted for internal planning dollars and execution dollars of SaskPower ... so this is a big waste of money and one that's put people's lives at risk."