STRASBURG — Town Council plans to vote at its Tuesday meeting on whether to pursue its goal of installing smart water meters around town.
Pending the vote, the council also plans a public information session, at which the community can discuss the positives and negatives of the smart meters.
After hearing a presentation about the smart meters at a Monday work session, Mayor Richard Orndorff Jr. said the best way to gauge the community’s thoughts on the matter would be for the council to hold a public information session, which has not been scheduled yet.
The presentation by Charles Dye, a contractor with Martinsburg, West Virginia, company Core & Main, raised questions from council members on whether water charges would increase for area residents, even though the intention of installing the new system is to make water usage readings more accurate.
The new system would simplify billing for town staff, Dye said. After charging customers a base rate for water and sewer service, the town would then be able to charge by the gallon instead of basing water rates on a range that can fluctuate by upwards of 1,000 gallons.
“We bill by 1,000 gallon units,” said Jay McKinley, director of public works. Though the town rounds down to the nearest 1,000 when billing, he said any extra gallons used will be held in a bank until they reach the next 1,000. When that happens, customers will see a higher than usual bill.
“That has caused a lot of confusion or concern,” he said.
Installation of the meter boxes and an enhanced radio system are expected to cost $806,883, with additional expenses for meter reading hardware and software and/or an annual software subscription for offering the customer portal.
McKinley said the cost of installing the system would pay for itself through better accuracy in charging customers over the first few years.
The accuracy of the new system would correct a 25% leakage rate that McKinley said has made water bills inconsistent. The problem of leakage includes billing errors and inaccuracies in actual water loss.
Town staff could also check the smart meters through computer software instead of having to do physical site readings, and customers would have access to portal software to check their usage from any digital device.
The system also would lessen the problem of over-billing and ease concerns that Orndorff said he’s heard from people who sporadically experience spikes in their water bill charges.
Despite the benefits, Councilman John Massoud expressed concern for residents whose bills could go up as a result of a more accurate system.
Councilman Ken Cherrix raised a concern he’s heard from those whose bills have spiked when they’ve used more water than usual to treat their lawns or fill swimming pools.
One such resident is Nathan Jordan, who said he recently received a bill from the town for nearly $900 after he used a sprinkler to water a lawn he had just seeded and sodded. He said the town charged him for using 30,000 gallons of water.
“It’s insane, my bill went from $90 to $900,” he said in a Tuesday phone call.
“That’s more than some people’s mortgages,” he said. “How is the town getting away with this?”
He said the bill included about $450 in sewer usage fees even though the water he used didn’t enter the sewer system.
Jordan talked with McKinley and Town Manager Wyatt Pearson about the matter and said the town sent someone to assess the situation but ultimately decided he would have to pay the charges.
“It’s absurd,” said Jordan, 38, who moved to town last year. “So many people have been saying this has been happening for years and years and years.”
After telling the town he would only pay the amount he overcharged on water, he said the town replied by threatening to shut off his water.
“So now you’re blackmailing me to pay the full price,” he said.
More than any reimbursement for the bill he paid, Jordan said he wants answers on how the town is using that money if it isn’t being used to account for water used in the sewer system.
Pearson said Tuesday that it’s common practice for localities around the region to run water systems like Strasburg does and that the town’s adjustment and meter policy doesn’t allow the town to read water usage without also applying sewer usage fees.
“What is used through the water meter is what we bill for sewer,” he said.
Though a smart meter system would better allow town staff to specify water usage, it still isn’t that simple.
“We will need to amend our policy to address that,” Pearson said.
The policy now allows the town to adjust water bills following either “catastrophic” water loss of at least three times the average water rate over the previous 12 months or the previous billing period if no history exists, or “non-catastrophic” water loss of at least twice the average rate. Both instances are contingent on the water loss being caused by faulty appliances and water lines or inaccurate readings from faulty meters.
Under these conditions, the town offers a possibility for adjustment “[i]f the customer can provide evidence that the water from the leak did not enter the sewer system.”
The policy notes that “older meters tend to under register, so when a new meter is installed, customers may experience a small increase in usage and charges.”
It also notes, “No adjustments will be made for the filling of swimming pools, hot tubs and outside watering.”
Asked if the town could change its policy before switching over to the smart water meter system, Pearson referenced a program that Winchester uses. There, he said, city residents can call ahead before they water lawns or fill pools and call back when they’re done. That way, the city can measure water usage over a 24-hour period instead of a month.
“We can implement a similar program,” Pearson said.
“The technology we have right now, we could run one of those programs,” he said, “it would just be a larger staff lift.”