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January 23, 2013

Water meter replacement likely on tap for Rochester residents

By Mary Beth Almond
C & G Staff Writer

ROCHESTER — The city of Rochester will soon have to replace its water meters, but fixing the problem will likely mean a significant water-bill increase for residents with older meters.

For the past four years, City Manager Jaymes Vettraino said, officials have been researching and analyzing how and when to replace the 30-year-old system — which is so outdated that the manufacturer stopped making the devices in 2010.

“Because of the technology use and the age of our meters, many of our meters are not reading as accurately as they should. … Let me be clear, when a meter reads inaccurately, it reads slow. A meter will never read faster, so that means water is getting through that is not getting billed,” he said.

During the research process, when 73 meters in the city were tested for accuracy, officials discovered that 78 percent of the devices underreported the amount of water consumed because the spinners that record water consumption slowed over time.

“That means 22 percent of us are paying an accurate amount of money for our water, 78 percent are not, and that is a huge problem for our community,” said City Councilmember Kim Russell. “It’s not fair.”

Upon installation of the new meters, consumers will likely see a bill increase. Vettraino said a significant amount water has been filtering through the older meters unnoticed for a number of years. While the bill may be bigger, he stressed that the increase will be due to a more accurate reading of consumption, not an increase in the rate — which will remain the same.

“When you put a new meter in, you then get an accurate read of the amount of water, and billing, that should go to that home. That is one of the issues that City Council is most concerned with and that we have spent a lot of time trying to address — that inaccuracy and the increase in the amount of metered water going through to that home,” he said.

Some council members, like Mayor Stuart Bikson, fear the increase could be as high as 40 percent in some homes.

“There is some evidence that it could be that high,” he said. “In some other communities that I’ve talked to, people have had some pretty large increases. … If we have an increase like that, I think we need to have a conversation on how we are going to finance that, because that’s a major hit to our customers.”

To help residents with older meters get accustomed to the change, the city plans to provide a temporary drop in the water rate to try to level out the cost increase.

“We are working on what exactly that rate may be,” Vettraino said. “We will also have an appeal board set up for extreme cases to try and help residents step into their true consumption.”

The overall project is expected to cost the city approximately $1.3 million, which would be paid out during the estimated three-year project implementation timeline. Administrators had hoped to install the new meters this winter, when water consumption is at its lowest — February, March and April — but City Council had a different idea.

While the majority of the council acknowledged that the project was worthy of moving forward with during the Jan. 14 meeting, members noted they wanted to have a clear communication plan in place before approval.

“Everyone knows the water meters don’t work,” Councilmember Steve Sage said. “But we also have to be very sensitive to the citizens and provide the proper communication and the proper support for the impact.”

Administrators are currently working on a communication plan, which Vettraino said would include how the city plans to explain the project to residents, how the city will address the project and what residents can expect.

“We’re going to develop a communication plan, revisit the timeline we have and also revisit some of the data that we were originally using to make sure that it’s still valid,” he said.

Vettraino said the issue will be back before council in the coming months.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Mary Beth Almond at malmond@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1060.