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Water meter plan drips with delays
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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.

"The installation is more complicated than anticipated," said Gebhardt. "Some of our connections are deeper and needed more work. We're a little behind."

Installation efforts were also set back because of a goof-up in the estimation of the number of meters required. Last week city officials and one of the contractors were red-faced and at a loss to explain why the city is 400 to 600 meters short of retrofitting every household in Ceres. The matter came up when the city council was asked permission to buy more meters at a cost of $138,324 and $54,000 for installation.. The council was unwilling to approve the amounts until their Jan. 13 meeting but expects an accounting for the shortage.

Gebhardt said lists supplied by the city either did not contain all the necessary addresses or that some addresses were erroneously removed when the contractor purged the list of duplications and merged lists together.

The council had hoped that Susie McMullan of Triton Technologies, the consultant overseeing the management of the switchover, would be present to answer but she was unable to attend.

"We are still under budget and things are going exceptionally well," commented Gebhardt.

Once the city settles the issue of buying more meters, installation should be completed by early February. Data will begin to be collected in March, he predicted, with the first mock billing appearing in the April utility billing. However, residents won't actually be billed a metered rate for water service until October.

Because the city is using an AMI, or Advanced Metering Infrastructure system, 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.

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.

Gebhardt said the city has undertaken an extensive education program to explain the switch to metered rates, which is required by state law. The city has fielded a number of calls.

"Most people who are concerned are less concerned after they learn the facts," he said.

Few also showed up at the Dec. 13 protest hearing.

Gebhardt said the average customer will see their water rates decrease. 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.

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 last year, and the remainder from a water quality "sinking fund."