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City buying 491 extra water meters
Ceres City Council members grilled a consultant Monday evening as to why she came up short in the number of water meters needed to convert the entire city from a flat rate to metered rate system.

Susie McMullan of Triton Technologies, the consultant overseeing the management of the switchover, asked the council last month to buy more water meters because of problems her company has had in nailing down the exact number needed to complete the installation. On Monday she asked for - and received - an okay to buy 491 more meters but not without fielding some tough questions.

Installation problems have set back the city's planned start of the water metering program and the mock billing process to precede it. The city originally expected to start issuing mock meter bills as of January. City Engineer Glenn Gebhardt said residents won't be seeing mock bills until April.

McMullan did her best to explain why the city and her firm have had difficulties in determining the exact number of meters. Part of the problem is the city's Eden accounting systems had multiple accounts for one address since old accounts were not eliminated.

Originally Triton issued a Request For Proposals (RFP) to install 11,636 meters in Ceres. But McMullen she arbitrarily scaled back when she asked the council to approve only 10,500 meters as her firm crunched the numbers. McMullen anticipated duplicates at some addresses on the master list which showed 10,976 meter services. After the installation teams began their work and found some surprises, the meter stock appeared to be short, she said.

Gebhardt said estimating the number of meters was not as easy as counting parcels since some residences are on wells and since the city supplies serve to those outside the city limits.

The council had tough words for McMullen.

"These were professionals we hired and they assured us ... these numbers were right," said Vice Mayor Ken Lane.

"I'm extremely disappointed in our consultant and what appears to be the lack of project management," said Mayor Chris Vierra. Still, he noted, the meter installation must "still move forward."

Councilman Bret Durrossette expressed no confidence that the 491 number will be the end of the matter.

"I guarantee you'll be back for more," Durrossette told McMullen. She surprised the council when she nodded her head affirmatively and later stated, "We don't have an accurate number right now...we won't know the exact number until it's done."

That prompted Lane to issue his comment: "I have a problem with the way this is being managed."

Finance Director Sheila Cumberland, who is the deputy interim city manager, guaranteed the council that the number of meters would not exceed 11,636.

The council voted 4-0 to approve the purchase of the new meters. The added expense of $138,324 does not put the project over the original contract amount. Vierra sternly told McMullen that he will not approve any extra funds on the project if it goes over.

The grand total for the city switch-over to water meters will be $4.3 million. The city plans to cover the expense through $3.2 million of water bonds the city issued in 2009, and the remainder from a water quality "sinking fund."

Meters are being installed at a rate of 200 to 500 per week with installation being slower in the older areas. The installation should be completed by the end of February, said Gebhardt. Data will begin to be collected in March with the first mock billing appearing in the April utility billing to give residents a chance to adjust use if necessary before bills for metered service go out in October.

The city is having an AMI, or Advanced Metering Infrastructure system installed. The city will collect meter readings electronically through a radio transmitter at each meter and received at towers. Data will be transmitted to a computer data base at City Hall. Homeowners will be able to see their hourly water use by accessing the city's website and setting up an account that has password protection. If homeowners see their use is too high they can scale back on watering and showers. From April to September residents will also be able to see how their metered rate will compare to their flat rate before the metered rate actually kicks in.

Gebhardt said the new system will allow the city to get a better handle on water consumption. An advantage to the AMI system, said Gebhardt, is that residents will be able to immediately identify hidden water pipe breaks or massive leaks before they are surprised with a larger-than-expected bill. It will also allow the city to catch those who are illegally connected to the system.

Once metering takes place the average customer should see their water rates decrease, he said. Currently most pay $28.19 per month for water. Those who use less than the average monthly usage of 16,000 gallons will pay less.

Rates will be based on pipe size coming into the house. Most people will pay a base rate of $19.67 per month plus 69 cents per 1,000 gallons of water.

The state is requiring all California cities to go to water meters under a two-phase plan. Water has increasing become a hot button issue in California and the push for meters stems from the typical end result of 20 percent less consumption.