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Water meter tampering will be costly
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Residents who have been tampering with their newly installed water meter in an effort to get out of paying metered rates will have to pay for the cost of their dirty deeds. The Ceres City Council on Monday approved a plan to charge the costs of repairing damaged meter units to the homeowner plus a yet-to-be-determined penalty.

The meters were installed this year as the city prepares to switch over from a flat rate to metered rates as of Jan. 1.

City staff told the council Monday that they are experiencing 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.

"It appears to be obvious that the damage that's being done is being done by either the actual person who's paying the bill at that site or people in that household," said City Attorney Michael Lyions.

In some rarer cases, however, vandals are breaking into boxes to steal brass fittings. Lyions said the city will have to use a "judgment call in the field" to determine if the resident / homeowner is the culprit.

This week alone the city found three units with clipped wires. In the beginning, some in-ground units were opened and radio transmitters smashed. Repairing clipped wires can cost a city staff member 30 minutes of work in the field.

"If they go to the level where .. they tore the radio apart, smashed it through the bottom of the box, that takes some time," Water Superintendent Jeremy Damas told the council. "If they smash the register on the meter itself there's quite a bit of time involved in that."

The city already has a law on the books against tampering with meters, said Lyions, but said it is typically treated as a criminal prosecution. The new law is designed to be a financial deterrent and help the city recoup the costs of repair.

"There will probably be special cases where we would prosecute certain persons criminally for their conduct but will probably reserve that the most extreme cases," said Lyions.

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.

Officials suspect the tampering is out of fear that metered rates will necessarily result in higher rates. Damas said that meters don't mean that rates will automatically rise. Some people will see their bills go down, based on the amount of water is used. The filling of swimming pools and excessive outdoor watering will likely result in higher bills for any given month, especially in the summer.

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.

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.

Councilman Bret Durossette said he wanted the city to educate residents that "if you bust this, you're responsible for this, period." The city may use billing inserts to get out the word.

Mayor Chris Vierra said the city needs to adopt a zero tolerance policy.

"It's going to come right back to the taxpayers if we allow it happen, to run rampant," said Vierra. "If you're found deliberately destroying the device you should pay the consequences."

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.