City to discuss water meter issues with Sensus

Staff Writer

Concerns about whether the city's high-tech water meters may be misreading customer usage is getting attention from West Point Selectmen.

City leaders will discuss those concerns with representatives from Sensus, the Canadian company that made and installed the meters in 2011, during a special meeting Monday.

Potentially hiring an assistant for City Administrator Randy Jones and considering a new cashier at the Water and Light Department are also the agenda for Monday's meeting. Utility rates have been a political football for more than a year and were a top campaign issue in the city's elections last summer. Selectmen vowed to get a handle on water and sewer rates and to try to manage electric rates.

It doesn't help that a few of the Sensus meters made before 2012 had defects, including a faulty gasket that allowed water to seep in and cause the meter's computer system to malfunction.

That led to a small number of faulty readings, including some where the meter actually ran backwards, Jones said.

But those meters were replaced and subsequent tests haven't found problems, he added.

The city spent more than $5 million buying and having the meters installed as a long-term way to get a handle on lost water, replace outdated meters that weren't properly reading actual usage, and to improve efficiency.

But with more efficiency and more accurate readings came higher bills in some cases. Throw in the flawed meters and troubles Sensus had in Jackson and Columbus, and some West Point residents have been left with a bad taste in their mouths.

And those expenses were just part of the picture. State and federal mandates forced the city to significantly upgrade its water and sewer treatment systems to meet new standards. That came on top of bonds issued years ago to expand capacity to handle industries that no longer are in business.

The city obtained an old treatment system operated by Bryan Foods, but it required $5 million to be upgraded. That still was far cheaper than building a new plant from scratch at a cost of $30 million or more.

"When you add all those things up, it hit the city pretty good," Jones said. "But it could have been much worse. And in the long run, these are investments, but that's hard to realize right now."

It's those questions and more that selectmen want to ask Sensus reps.

City leaders also have questioned high electric rates, but those are something over which the city has almost no control because for the most part, rates are based on what the Tennessee Valley Authority charges the city for electricity. The utility giant also mandates certain financial reserves from its partner utilities, all things that make it hard for consumers to swallow at this time of year when cold weather brings high electric bills.

Meanwhile, hiring an assistant for Jones is an idea raised by Selectmen. If they decide to pursue the position, they'll have to find money for a salary and benefits because the position is not included in the city's budget.

Monday's special Board of Selectmen's meeting is at 10 a.m. downstairs at West Point City Hall.