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'Cadillac' meter reading system too pricey now
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The city of Ceres may no longer be be able to afford the "cadillac" water meter reading system it was ready to order in December.

On Monday the Ceres City Council learned that the system has turned out more expensive than originally suggested. Members choked on the new pricetag of the system: nearly $2.83 million.

Late last year vendors made their pitch to the city about two different systems that could be used to read meters. Since the city is looking at going from a flat-rate to metered water bills, it has the choice of a drive-by reading system or one in which data is sent electronically over radio waves to a receiver at City Hall. The latter system, called the Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) system, had been deemed too expensive prior to the Dec. 14 council meeting. But Jim Henry of Golden State Flow Measurement, Inc., suggested then that the city could afford the AMI system because he could realize a saving of about $420,000 of the $700,000 extra costs. Henry said the savings could be realized by reusing about 5,000 existing water box lids and using one transmitter in instances were neighbors' boxes are close together. The council collectively said it wanted the AMI system. But on Monday Henry reported that there are fewer instances of dual box opportunities in Ceres than believed and he could only find $254,000 in savings.

The council gave Henry two weeks to pare down the system price and threatened to go to other vendors offering to build a drive-by system.

"I am losing confidence in this entire process," said a frazzled Mayor Anthony Cannella. He added that he wanted to take a step back and get everything straight.

"Because we are not saving as much we may take a different course," Cannella hinted.

Cannella appeared irritated that Henry's promises of greater savings is what led the council into believing it could afford the more advanced system and diverted the city's focus of going with a less expensive drive-by system.

"We know we can afford it," said Cannella of the drive-by reading system.

The council initially liked the idea of the instantaneous radio data collection but struggled with the estimated $700,000 in extra costs. Benefits include enabling city officials to track water use cycles and water demand as well as allow each bill payer the ability to monitor daily water use through an online account. Residents will be able to learn what their bills will be and immediately able to identify if they have leaks before they get surprised with a larger-than-expected bill.

A number of business-hungry vendors are licking their chops to win the big ticket contract. One firm, National, suggested at a January council meeting that they could get the job done cheaper if allowed to bid on AMI. Henry protested, saying his was the only firm that went to the effort of responding to a Request for Proposals (RFP).

John Carpenter, a Citrus Heights water meter company that proposed a "drive-by" reading system, said his firm didn't bother with an AMI proposal after getting a sense that the city preferred the less expensive system.

During the meeting Cannella expressed shock at the grand total of all the hidden costs and was stern with Susie McMullan of Triton Technologies, the consultant overseeing the management of the switchover. He said the council wants all of the costs of the proposal in two weeks so there will be no surprises.

The state is requiring cities to go to water meters under a two-tiered plan. It divides all houses into two categories: those built before 1992 and those built after. By the end of 2010, the city must install water meters on all homes built after 1992. And by January 2025, the state requires all cities to have meters installed on homes built prior to 1992. The city, however, plans to install meters on all homes this year for two reasons. Public Works Director Phil Scott said it's the most fair and equitable way to treat residents. The city also welcomes conservation because of the difficulty in meeting water demands that depend solely on groundwater sources.

Ceres has yet to develop metered rates. Rates will be based on existing usage and customers will get a mock bill the month preceding the month the metering will begin.