ITHACA, N.Y.—City officials will begin negotiating a contract to receive pro-bono services from KPMG, one of the largest accounting firms in the world by revenue. The company has offered to do a range of work for the City of Ithaca, including flood risk modeling. 

The enticing offer comes as a part of the company’s Net Zero Urban Program. KPMG announced the program in 2022 as an effort to expand its presence in the field of city decarbonization — an initiative which the city of Ithaca has gained some international attention for its building electrification program. On Wednesday, Common Council authorized negotiations to begin with KPMG in an 8-1 vote.

Representatives of KPMG initially expressed interest in Ithaca for its building electrification initiative, according to Rebecca Evans, the city of Ithaca’s Director of Sustainability. But Evans told Common Council Wednesday that it is apparent that “flooding is top of mind for our residents.” Considering that, Evans said she and other city officials told KPMG they would prefer the work focus on flood mitigation.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released draft flood maps in 2022 that greatly expand the area in Ithaca expected to be impacted by a 100-year flood. Many home and business owners in the expanded flood zones will be required to begin buying flood insurance as a result. The additional cost figures into ongoing affordability issues already burdening city residents. 

Prior to the council’s vote, Evans emphasized the benefits that the city could draw from a digital twin model that KPMG would develop using AugmentCity, a cloud-based augmented reality program. A digital twin, she said, would allow the city to create simulations using publicly available data sets that it currently isn’t able to, what peak flood levels would look like in the city. 

KPMG’s offer includes training and licenses for the software they would develop the digital twin with, Evans said, and the city will maintain the data used to generate the simulations.

“This would essentially be a ‘Google Maps Street View’ of the city that allows you to run these simulations and see them happen in real time and see how humans actually could interact with that,” Evans said.

The offer of pro-bono services from a multi-billion dollar international corporation appeared almost too good to be true for some members of council. 

“So I know that KPMG is in the business of making lots of money,” Alderperson Donna Fleming said Wednesday. “So what’s in this for them?”

Evans told the council that, based on her conversations with representatives of the company, KPMG is “trying to build out that experience and provide a pilot that shows real value.” 

KPMG, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.

While the services from KPMG may initially be free, Evans said, “Ultimately, yes, they’re trying to sell this service as a consultancy,” either to the City of Ithaca or to other clients. 

Mike Thorne, the City of Ithaca’s Superintendent of Public Works, has been a lead in the efforts to address the increased flood risks the City of Ithaca faces. In an email he said of KPMG’s offer to build a digital twin that “it’s free and can’t hurt.”

Wednesday was only the first time that members of council were discussing the idea of entering into a contract with KPMG. Normally, resolutions move through a committee of council where they are discussed and voted on before being sent to the full council, but the last meeting of the City Administration Committee — where the KPMG pro-bono services resolution would have been reviewed — was canceled due to a lack of quorum. 

The reason behind expediting the vote is that the city only has the next five months to take advantage of the opportunity, Evans said. She added that the city only has until the end of the calendar year to utilize the free work KPMG is offering.

However, the sense of urgency was not felt by Alderperson Cynthia Brock, who cast the sole dissenting vote against authorizing city staff to begin contract negotiations with KPMG. 

She said, “I would like the opportunity to do a bit more vetting into the organization, and their experience, before making any kind of agreement or commitment.”

Her concern lay in the potential for a flooding simulation to exaggerate or underestimate the risks of flooding scenarios to the public.

“I would be hesitant to enter into any agreement or project without actually fielding this with individuals who actually do flood mitigation and flood analysis in the county now,” Brock said.

County officials, as well as officials from the Town of Ithaca and other stakeholders, will be invited to join a focus group to discuss the scope of work KPMG would be undertaking as a part of contract negotiations, Evans told the council.

Correction: The headline of this article contained a typo. It has been corrected.

Jimmy Jordan is Senior Reporter for The Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn