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Fines go up for meter tampering
Members of the Ceres City Council took action last week to enact fines - higher than originally planned - for those who deliberately destroy or disengage their water metering equipment. In addition to the fine, a homeowner would be forced to pay for equipment and labor to make the repairs.

However, the position taken by Councilman Guillermo Ochoa drew gasps from the crowd at the Aug. 22 meeting.

Ochoa refused to go along with three council members in bumping up the punitive fine from $50 to $100 for the first offense and $100 to $200 for the second offense.

"I could fully support $100," said Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra. "I think if someone is mischievous enough to go and deliberately cut a meter that they're trying to get around I ... would have no problem with it."

Ochoa, however, said he wanted to keep the first fine at $50, feeling the cost of repairs are "high enough price as it is."

Vierra recoiled and asked Ochoa, "even with the staff being allowed the latitude.... if they can clearly tell it's the homeowner we should still keep it at $50?" Ochoa replied "I would like to err on the side of caution and not penalize our citizens. We are in a recession and people are hurting."

Ochoa then motioned to keep the first fine at $50. It failed for a lack of a second.

Councilman Bret Durossette commented $50 was too low for a fine and made a motion for the higher fines, which passed 3-1 with Ochoa the lone disserter.

"My understanding is if you're doing this, you shouldn't be doing it," said Durossette. "I think if you jaywalk across the street it's more than $50 and if I was charged $50 I'd do it again. Bad analogy, but...."

The degree of the fines was debated after resident Jennifer Hagen asked the council why it wasn't setting a higher fines to discourage the damage of the newly installed sophisticated equipment. City Attorney Michael Lyions advised the council that it could set the fine at "wherever" they wanted.

The city had an existing law in force against tampering with meters, said Lyions, with a first offense fine of $35. That existing law typically required criminal prosecution but new law is designed to be a financial deterrent and help the city recoup the costs of repair.

Water meters were installed this year as the city prepares to switch over from a flat rate to metered rates on Jan. 1. Water Superintendent Jeremy Damas said the city is seeing a steady number of cases where meters are being clipped of their wires or radio transmitters bashed in and the suspicions are that the owners are doing it, not random vandals.

"The destruction has been deliberate," said Mayor Chris Vierra, when asked by resident David Pratt who asked how the city can tell for sure if the homeowner did the damage. Vierra said judgement is used.

Police Chief/Acting City Manager Art deWerk said the city does not automatically assume the homeowner did the damage.

"We look for correlating evidence," said deWerk. "Typically when there's simple vandalism, the people's account don't show that they are in arrears or anything. Generally ... if there's tampering ... it's because bills are in arrears or the city has already shut off their water because they haven't paid, then we go out and shut it off again only to find the vandalism."

The city was required by the state to put all homes on water meters in an effort to attain a 20 percent decrease in water use.

The city has installed state of the art meters for an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) system that allows the city to read meters by radio transmission rather than traditional drive-by collection of meter data. Each meter transmits data to towers at Costa Fields in Smyrna Park or the city's corporation yard on Hackett Road and then is downloaded into city computers. The system allows the city to track citywide water use cycles and and each bill payer will be able to monitor hourly 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.

Damas said his crew is finding that some residents are placing objects like concrete blocks, cars or garbage cans over their meters which blocks the transmission of data. He's found that five to six meters a day are not able to transmit for that reason and others.

The city knows when meters are down because the meters are equipped to send data to City Hall on usage figures. Residents are being allowed to track how their bills might look before the actual metering begins next January. Damas said the mock billing gives residents months to monitor their use, curb use if necessary and prepare for possible payment increase.

It has cost the city $4.3 million to switchover to the metered water system.