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City aims to deter water meter tampering

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An ordinance for recovering costs when smart water meters are tampered with was recently passed by the Roswell City Council.

The ordinance language states the utility account holder or property owner is responsible for keeping and maintaining the meter on their property. The ordinance also states that any tampering, alteration or removal by the account holder would be considered a misdemeanor.

On Dec. 13, City Councilor Judy Stubbs made the motion to establish a new section of the city code to deal with “malicious or unintentional” tampering with digital water meters. The final vote was also 8 to 2 with Councilor Angela Moore and Councilor Barry Foster voting against the proposed new ordinance.

The $21 million smart water meter project’s bond sale was approved by the council, according to the official minutes of a special meeting, in January of last year.

Finance Director Monica Garcia said the $1.4 million annual bond payments for the smart meters will mature in 2037 and must be paid solely out of the net revenues derived from the operation of water and sewage systems. Five months into the 2019 fiscal year, Garcia said water revenues are “running” well and the city is projecting an approximately $2.2 million revenue increase from last year’s sales in water and service.

Recovering costs

City Attorney Holloman said the “huge” project to expand the city’s infrastructure is nearing its end. During the installation of 19,000 meters, Holloman the city has already “encountered several situations of damage to meters,” which he called high-tech and more expensive than the previous meters. Holloman reminded the council that this ordinance was recommended for approval by the city’s Infrastructure Committee (reviewed at two meetings) and at the Legal Committee in October.

Summing up the ordinance, Holloman said damage to a meter is charged to the utility customer. The first instance of proven tampering would require the installation of a locking lid. Following this, charges would be placed on the customer’s utility bill after a second offense. In any other instances of damages, service could be canceled with required reinstallation costs and a $50 service fee.

In the past, Holloman said the city “could install locking lid, but could not recover costs,” due to a “gap in ordinances.” He added the proposed ordinance allows for the city to recover costs with a criminal penalty, and civil, for damaging a meter. Once tampering has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, Holloman said the criminal fines and fees paid for damages will transfer from the municipal court system to the city’s general fund.

Some of the councilors voiced concerns about property owners being wrongly accused of tampering with the meters at other meetings. Holloman said the tampering would have to be proven and would not be based solely on accusations.

Human factor 

“My point that I’ve made several times in our meetings and why I oppose this … as an owner I can install a lock on my water (meter) that the city can’t get to — and if I do that, then you’re going to red tag me because you want access to that,” Foster said. “And so, I just don’t see that this is the correct way. I understand why we need it because I know that it’s expensive, but proving it. And then, also just the fact that people could vandalize individuals’ meters, but then that homeowner’s held responsible for it. That’s why I am fundamentally against it …”

City Engineer Louis Najar said about three meters have been vandalized. Najar said new meters cost $450 to replace compared to the $100 replacement fee for the old water meters, and the city is attempting “to have a mechanism to protect our assets.” Najar added the city has added a “human factor” allowing citizens to plead their case with the city manager, or a designee of the city manager, if they are vandalized or not responsible for the damage.

Councilor Jacob Roebuck said 15 days to arrange a time to meet with the city manager was “a narrow window” and offered an amendment to the time limit, 45 days instead of 15. Roebuck made the motion to change the number from 15 days to 45 days and Councilor Caleb Grant seconded. Roebuck’s amendment passed 8 to 2 with Councilor Steve Henderson and Councilor Jeanine Corn Best voting in opposition.

Roebuck asked how much money has been lost from vandalized meters year to date; he said he “was not sure why we’re even looking at this” if there wasn’t an answer yet. Later in the meeting, Roebuck said the city should be “very careful” when passing such ordinances and that not knowing the dollar amount gave him “pause.”

“I would say that most of us here pay natural gas, usually the meter is in the alley,” Najar said. “You pay cable, you pay electricity and they have very similar regulations. We are in the utility business, so from the utility perspective, we’re just following along the standards of other utility suppliers.”

Roebuck also asked if destruction of the city’s property was already included in enforceable vandalism laws. Najar confirmed there are avenues for this, but in those cases, the courts retain the fines instead of returning them to the city. Holloman said there is no mechanism currently to charge citizens for other damages other than to petition a judge to issue restitution at the district court level.

Councilor Savino Sanchez inquired whether it’s possible for the city to differentiate between tampering or vandalism. Kevin Dillon, project and facilities director, said each meter has a tampering alarm that alerts Central Control in real time. He said before the network was installed some of the meters were damaged. Dillon said the city has seen only one case of vandalism and all other instances were tampering. He said in both instances citizens can plead their case.

When Mayor Dennis Kintigh sought public input on the ordinance, no one came forward to speak during the public hearing portion.

Service disruption 

Councilor Juan Oropesa asked if citizens would be without service for the 15 days — the question came before Roebuck’s amendment making the timeframe 45 days had passed. In response, City Manager Joe Neeb said disruption in service would happen in a situation where a utility bill was not paid within a three-month window and the citizen had chosen to not enter a payment plan. Neeb said he could not foresee the city “ever enforcing no service for a tampering issue.”

“I think the intent is to get the service back on as quickly as we can, and so you know, we’re not going to wait until our meter is returned,” Neeb said. “We will fix the system, deal with the issue. So I think Louis (Najar) just mentioned that it really depends on the circumstances, but the intent is to always put the service back and then we correct the issue.”

Companion resolution 

Later in the meeting, the city council also passed a companion resolution to the water meter tampering ordinance. The resolution covers the replacement and repair costs to be charged to residents who damage their digital water meters. Councilors Stubbs made the motion, Henderson seconded and the voice vote was unanimous.

Najar explained the costs associated with replacing and repairing the damaged meters are listed in a table within in the companion resolution. He also said the city will pay contract costs — and if contract cost increases fees will correlate. The ordinance states that “in no event shall the city charge less than current market price for any replacement parts, as reasonably obtainable at the time of replacement.”

Councilor Foster said that the city and the water department will need to be held accountable to maintain water service for citizens — when citizens are petitioning their case to the city in either the event of tampering or vandalism.

City/RISD reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.