Following a public hearing, a reticent Great Bend City Council Monday night voted to move forward with the city’s application for a $2.2 million Kansas Public Water Supply Loan Fund for the installation of an automated water meter reading system and to seek bids for the project. The idea is to improve long-running problems with timely and accurate meter readings.
On May 3, staff requested permission to apply for a loan through the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The first step in the process was the state-mandates hearing, City Administrator Kendal Francis said.
“This will be A 20-year, fixed-interest-rate loan with no penalty for pre-payment,” Francis said. As of this March, the interest rate would be 1.3%.
Francis said they would like to get it paid off in 15 years to make financial room to accommodate for maintenance as the equipment ages.
Staffing issues and aging infrastructure have made the timely and accurate reading of the city’s water meters an issue. A divided council on May 3 authorized moving forward with a hearing on the project.
There was concern among the council about the cost and about the possible loss of jobs this would cause.
Only one person addressed the council during the hearing. That was Becky Carlson, a Great Bend resident who is a former water clerk for the City of Marysville.
“We did something similar,” she said of the town switching to auto meters about 10 years ago. “It was amazing.”
They auto meters saved time and they saved money, Carlson said. She still keeps in touch with folks in Marysville and is not aware of any complaints.
Also, “it hurts the people” if there are errors, she said. If meters aren’t read regularly, a home may have a leak and the owner will not know about it until it becomes a problem.
“It is well worth the funds,” Carlson said.
However, “we need to be more careful with our money,” Ward 1 Councilman Alan Moeder said. He has heard reports from cities like Shreveport, La., where the change caused problems.
He also said there may be other systems on the market that may be cheaper.
“There are multiple automated options,” Francis said. But, just applying for the loan and seeking bids doesn’t commit the city to a certain system.
Bidders may present alternative ideas the city has considered, Francis said. He hopes to come back to the council in a little over a month with some options after bids have been received.
The original plan was to tap federal COVID-19 recovery stimulus American Rescue Plan funding to purchase the system. The city will be getting about $2 million; however, half of that money was already promised to a Great Bend Economic Development effort to encourage downtown loft construction by helping pay for sprinkler system installation.
The ARP funds will distributed in two allocations with the second one at least 12 months away, officials said. So, as a plan B, they were already prepared to apply for the loan to cover the full cost.
The automated solution
Automated meter reading systems record the usage and send the readings via radio waves to a collector and computer system mounted in a vehicle. Those are then downloaded into the city’s billing software, and the entire town could be read in less than one day.
Manually, by walking meter to meter, a worker must read one meter every three minutes to get every meter read in a billing cycle. The city runs four billing cycles.
Now, it takes about one week to read one cycle’s worth of meters and a second week for follow-up re-reads.
In addition, as water meters age, they slow down, and lose accuracy by letting water pass through them without being metered. The installation of new meters is anticipated to raise annual revenues between 1% and 3% due to their increased measuring accuracy, and the AMR will further enhance that by providing both timely and accurate readings.
The prospect of an AMR system has been discussed for several years. As such, as staff replaces meters, they have been installing AMR compatible meters that can be retrofitted with radio transmitters which will help reduce the cost.
As for the current employees, they would be reassigned within the utilities department, Francis said. As with any technology, there can be glitches so there will be a need for a meter tech position that services meters and the AMR system.
From the start of the bidding process to completion would take about six to eight months, Francis said. After the bidding, the final price could be lower.
Why is this an issue?
An analysis of meter reads since April 2018 shows the average monthly billing estimations to be 17%, which equates to approximately 1,037 estimations. Slowing down to allow for more accurate reads forces estimations on meters, which also creates billing issues, Francis said.
City personnel at the May 3 meeting said they receive many calls from customers complaining about water bills, their accuracy and the usage estimates.
The city has about 6,100 commercial and residential water meters that are already on a rotating replacement schedule.
Other factors that contribute to the problem are weather that prevents daily reading and employee absences.
The city added another position in March 2019 and that helped alleviate estimations, but accuracy did not improve. City officials said hiring and retaining quality employees who are able to both quickly and accurately read meters has been a challenge.
It is a stressful job that requires working in the elements for low pay. The city has had utilized nine different meter readers since adding the second reader.
In May, the city had two very capable employees. However, one had already applied for other openings within the city and the other has found different employment as well.
The answer to this, city officials believe, is technology.
A high cost
The loan would be for the full price, but it could be possible to tap the second half of the ARP funds to cover half of it. And, just because the loan is for $2.2 million doesn’t mean the city has to accept the full amount.
There are grant opportunities as well, but they would only cover a portion of the cost and the application process would delay the project into next year.