Rochester planning to replace aging water meters

The city of Rochester has known for years that its water meters are no longer providing accurate readings. Fixing the problem will be costly, to both the city and its water customers.

Monday night, council held off on a request by the city administration to award a bid to replace the antiquated meters. Council members were clearly worried about the reaction from residents, most of whom can expect their bills to rise once accurate meters are installed.

The city has been working toward this point for about four years. The current system is 30 years old and parts are no longer available. City workers have to walk the city to take readings, logging them by hand. The new technology would allow for drive-by readings and more accurate billing.

A test of 73 meters found that 78 percent of them read inaccurately, underreporting the amount of water consumed. Armed with that information, last year council directed administration to seek bids on a new system and establish policy to help those who experience the most extreme billing increases.

“We know we have a problem,” said Councilwoman Kim Russell. “If I have a new meter, I’m paying the right amount. If Steve has an old meter, he’s not paying the right amount. That’s really not fair to the city as a whole.”

The city had hoped to start installation of the new meters this winter, the season when water consumption is lowest. But at Monday’s meeting, some council members were concerned about the number of meters tested and the resulting assumptions. Mayor Stuart Bikson said he will schedule a council workshop “with the idea that we’re going to keep this moving as fast as we can.”

“I think this council is unanimous that we need to start the process to fix this problem,” he said.

Plans call for a water-rate reduction after the new meters are installed. A new rate plan would be designed to keep revenues status quo while more clearly and accurately reflecting actual water consumption.

But in the interim, some customers could see their bills go up as much as 40 percent, Bikson said.  “If we have an increase like that, I think we need a conversation about how are we going to finance that, because that’s a major hit to the customers,” he said.

“I think we have to be very careful in the way that we phrase this,” Councilman Jeff Cuthbertson said. “Your rate will not go up. Your consumption will go up … if you have a poorly performing meter.”

The recommended bid is $1.3 million; the cost would be spread over three years. The city could recoup the investment in three years, unless council decides to adjust water rates before that to lessen the impact on customers.

“There is going to be no easy way to do this,” said Councilman Ben Giovanelli. “I applaud the efforts everybody has gone to to date to try to build in a safety valve … if the bill’s too high. And we’ve built some safeguards in.”

He said he will need to see how the city plans to communicate with customers before he can support moving forward.

“I want to make sure that have public hearings, I want to make sure that we’ve done our due diligence,” he said. “We have to let people know.”

Councilwoman Cathy Daldin said her meter was found to be inaccurate and has since been replaced. She said her first bill was a shock.

“But what it gave our family was information on how to change our habits. It gives the consumer information that they need to know, how much water are you really using,” she said. “They can adjust their spending accordingly.”

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