Saliine City Council Wants More Analysis of Proposal to Upgrade Water Meters

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When Saline City Council met last Monday, it was presented with a motion to spend $195,836.52 with Core and Main for a new water meter system.

It wasn't a one-time expenditure. It was the first of 10 payments for a $1.7 million project that would update the city's antiquated meter reading process - a process that requires extensive labor. allows expensive leaks to go unchecked for too long, and which doesn't provide city staff much useful information as it tries to tackle issues like rusty water.

Core & Main, in its proposal documents, says its water meter system will help the city on all those fronts. In addition, city staff say the system will improve customer service and budgeting, provide greater system control, improve the accuracy of consumption reads and bills, help the city identify more lead and copper in the system, provide convenient communication tools between the city and customer, and improve the security of the water system.

The cost of replacing every water meter in the city and installing the new technology is not insignificant. But, said City Manager Colleen O'Toole, "A system like this could pay for itself."

While the city has been considering smart meters for years,  council members were surprised to see such a big-ticket item appear on the agenda as an action item without previous discussion.

Mayor Brian Marl, who sets the agenda, acknowledged the need for for council to question to consider the proposal, absorb the information and ask questions.

"Because of the cost of this of this change and also the nature of it, which is a pretty fundamental departure from the way we've conducted business over the past several decades, I think that it's appropriate just to have a discussion this evening to address whatever questions and concerns you may have tonight and then to revisit this issue," Marl said.

He suggested council could consider the issue when it meets again, Dec. 6.

DPW Larry Sirls briefly outlined the advantages of the system:

  • The city would save 24 hours a week in staff time reading meters.
  • Some existing meters have low accuracy, which is means there's an element of unfairness in the way the city has its customers pay for water.
  • The system will help the city identify more lead and copper lines in accordance with state law.
  • A communication platform that can be used to alert residents about upcoming construction projects, boil water alerts, etc.
  • Integration with the city's BS&A billing software.
  • A two-way dashboard which gives the city and customers real-time information about water usage.
  • Right now, it sometimes takes 3-4 months for the city to identify a leak in the system. Often times, the city finds out when a resident calls to complain about a bill $1,000 more than expected. This dashboard would notify the city and user much faster when consumption rises.

Sirls said the city would "reap the benefit" of getting the system installed before Layher Farms, Maple Oaks and other subdivisions are built.

Councillor Jim Dell'Orco said he had a number of concerns with the proposal.

"Chief among them is, one bid, one contractor. I do think, even if we end up opting to move forward with this, it's certainly worth soliciting more information about our current investment and current meters," Dell'Orco said.

Dell'Orco said the city has encountered situations in which it has exchanged equipment only to find out the new equipment equipment isn't as good as what they had.

Dell'Orco said he also had concerns with the meters' batteries, which aren't expected to last beyond 12 years.

"They're gonna have to go back in and replace all these meters. Again, that's a hidden cost behind the original 1.7 million dollars," Dell'Orco said.

Dell'Orco council hold a work meeting to go over concerns.

"I have a laundry list of questions. I need more time to digest the technology and materials going into this," Dell'Orco said. "I'm particularly concerned because (the cost) is not coming out of our general funds, it would be levied against our ratepayers. We're contemplating this in parallel with making significant upgrades to our wastewater treatment plant and all these things are coming on the backs of the rate payers at once."

Dell'Orco said is that it's his understanding the city can upgrade the existing equipment and achieve some of the same goals without changing the entire system.

"We've been approached with requests to make those upgrades several times over the last decade and we just haven't done it," Dell'Orco said. "I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If we can at least consider the option of what Neptune can do with the technologies that we have in place, I think that's worth doing."

Marl said he appreciated Dell'Orco's comments and reiterated he thought it would be "wildly inappropriate" to take formal action that night.

Councillor Janet Dillon said she was on the page and that the issue warranted a work meeting. She said she hoped staff could provide a pros and cons analysis. She also wanted to know if the project could be put out to bid.

Still, she thought it could be a sign of progress.

"This has been in the talks for longer than I've been on council and it is nice to see some forward motion," Dillon said. "It's a significant financial investment or the city and for the residents and I just want to make sure that we're thoughtful in that process."

Councillor Jack Ceo said he'd only received the packet a few hours before the meeting. Ceo said he favored a slow approach with at least one work meeting.

Councillor Kevin Camero-Sulak said he was interested in the advanced metering infrastructure and wanted to know the experiences of other cities using the system.

Councillor Dawn Krause thanked Sirls for his forward-thinking approach.

Marl said the meeting would appear as a discussion item at council's next regular meeting Dec. 6.

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