After years of being pushed aside as too costly, a wholesale replacement of Brookfield’s water meters is under serious consideration by village staff and administration. The issue has generated significant discussion at two recent meetings of village trustees, a June 6 meeting of the board’s Infrastructure Committee and the June 13 meeting of the board’s Committee of the Whole.
The board instructed Public Works Director William Brandt to come up with a specific set of costs for such a project in addition to related additional revenues or lowered costs that would result from instituting such a program.
In 2003, the board received an informal estimate of $2.5 million for replacing all current meters with a computerized remote-read system, but the village never sought formal bids.
Riverside began a three-year effort to replace all of its water meters with the remote-read type in 2004. The total cost for equipment, which Riverside will recoup by charging customers $235 for each new meter, is approximately $800,000.
“Staff is seriously looking into this kind of thing,” said Trustee Kit Ketchmark, a member of the board’s Infrastructure Committee. “But one way or the other, we have to deal with this. Even if we don’t get the remote-read meters, there needs to be a systematic replacement of meters.”
Trustee Alan Dorobiala, also a member of the Infrastructure Committee, pushed for the village to consider changing to a new remote-read system during the village’s Committee of the Whole session.
“I think we should look for a new system,” Dorobiala said. “To go down and do [readings] off a computer would be a cost savings to the village and help staff.”
Ketchmark said he expects that a decision on which direction to take should be reached “over the next few months.”
“We have options for financing this, but we also need something that tells us it’s a worthwhile investment,” Ketchmark said.
At the heart of the issue is a concern about the village’s current crop of water meters, many of which are over 30 years old and failing at an increasing rate. According to a memo from Brandt to Village Manager Dave Owen in April 2004, some “40 percent of the [village’s] water meters are outdated and in need of replacement.”
But with no set schedule for their ongoing replacement, Brookfield’s water meters are becoming more unreliable as they age. The result has been a double-whammy. As the meters age, they slow down and don’t accurately record the amount of water actually running through them. That means the village is losing out on revenue.
At the same time, old meters are more frequently resulting in unexpectedly large bills for customers. Each building in the village is equipped with two meters, one inside that takes the actual reading, and one outside that receives a signal from the inside meter and records the usage.
Meter readers take their readings from the outside meters. The trouble is that as the meters age, the outside meters malfunction, sometimes failing to record any water usage at all. When the problem is identified by village staff, someone is sent to take an inside meter reading to see how far apart the inside and outside readings are. Sometimes it’s not so bad. Other times, the news is a shock.
Single-family homeowners have been hit with up to $2,000 water bills when meter readings are reconciled. In one case with a multifamily building owner, the discrepancy between the inside and outside meters resulted in a bill of over $4,000.
And the problem seems to be getting worse. According to Margaret Patino, who handles the water billing for Brookfield, at least 11 property owners are on payment plans with the village in the wake of huge water bills.
“We get at least one per week where there’s a pretty big difference [in the meter readings],” Patino said. “I do expect to see this as more of a problem if we do start changing water meters out on a larger scale.”
Part of the problem is that the village doesn’t currently have a regular schedule for replacing old water meters. The average life of the village’s meters is estimated at 15 to 20 years, yet 1972 is the last time the village conducted a comprehensive meter replacement program.
That’s not to say meters haven’t been replaced since, but in recent years the effort has been sporadic. According to Brandt, his staff change meters if they are determined to be defective or damaged, when houses are sold or if a customer requests a meter be changed.
In addition to a decision on whether to change to a remote-read meter system, staff is also working to codify billing procedures, including payment plans and billing adjustments. Those changes will eventually be worked into an ordinance.