City looks to replace its outdated water meters
By Seth D. Michaels
Medford Transcript

In response to complaints that the city's water-metering system is out-of-date and inaccurate, officials this week are considering installing new meters throughout the Medford.

At a recent City Council meeting, Councilor Michael Marks said re-metering needs to be a top priority because malfunctioning meters are costing the city additional revenue each year. 

"We should try to tackle the problem of meters that are malfunctioning or in disrepair," said Marks, who added that he's had many complaints from residents about inaccurate water bills.

"We've given 709 abatements in the past three years. If there's one ratepayer who has to fight a bill because of an outdated water meter, that's a problem.

"There's a systemic problem - these bad meters are turning into complaints, and the complaints are escalating," he continued. "This system is will past its age.  We need to address it. The longer we neglect it, the more it's going to cost in the long run."

Marks and Council President Robert Penta criticized the Board of Commissioners of Water and Sewers for holding their hearings in the mid-morning, when rate-payers hoping to challenge an inaccurate bill are generally at work.

Homeowner Marie Senat-Andre said her bad meter has cost her considerable money and time both in inaccurate bills and attendance at water and sewer hearings.

"It's been two years I've been going to these meetings," Senate-Andre said. "I've been very patient, but it's ridiculous. They estimate my bill becuase my meter isn't working.  I want to pay my bill, but I want to pay the right amount."

Senat-Andre said she had to hire plumbers to check if her pipes were leaking because of overcharges to her bill. She has had her water meter head replaced, but is still receiving readings she feels are too high.

"I expect if a resident has a problem, someone will take the time to look into it," she said. "I'm tired of going to these meetings every quarter."

Marks said as water rates rise because of tight state and local budgets, it will become increasingly important to the city and ratepayers alike to have accurate readings.

"We have an obligation to the ratepayers in the community," he said.

 

City Engineer Don Ouellette said new meters will solve the problems facing ratepayers.

"The meters are like any other mechanical part," he said. "They have a life expectancy. The life expectancy for the meters is about 10 years, but we've gone 17 years since we've replaced them. The meters tend to read slower the longer they've been in use."

Inaccuracies are likely to result from old meters, Ouellette said, and while small users may be charged for every drop of water, larger users may only have 70 percent of their water use read.  With broken meters, the city often needs to estimate what a bill should be.

"The older the meter gets, the more repairs we have to do and the more estimating we have to do," he said. "the collection process becomes a real mess, and inequitable to homeowners."

Ouellette said re-metering is feasible, but would cost around $3 million.

"What will end up happening is that meters will read more accurately," he said. "They'll have a radio reader rather than having a meter-reader go to every house.  We can drive down the street and get a radio signal, and bills will be automated.  Large water users who have been getting lesser bills will be charged the full amount, and we'll have to do less abatements for overcharging."

Because of greater accuracy and easy reading, the re-metering will in effect pay for itself, Ouellette said.

"We'll probably save $100,000 a year on labor costs and bill processing," he said.  "Right now we're doing so many abatements, for a total of about $1.7 million over three years - that's $600,000 a year we've essentiall lost.  If you bond for it, the actual cost per year will be about $380,000. I'm confident we'll be able to pay for it."

Over the coming weeks Ouellette hopes to meet with City Council members to discuss costs and a possible timetable for the project.

"I've just put in the bid paperwork," he said.  "We've scheduled a bid opening for Feb. 28.  I'll meet with the council on Feb. 4.  Every indication we've gotten is that they understand the problem, and I've gotten a letter from them endorsing a move forward on this."