Selectmen seek answers from Sensus on water meters

Staff Writer

It may not be everything they wanted to hear, but at least now West Point Selectmen have some answers for constituents complaining about high water or electric bills.

"Yes, at least pretty much," Ward 1 Selectwoman Leta Turner responded when asked if she'd gotten her questions answered during an hour-long special meeting Monday with representatives of the company that made the high-tech wireless meters the city began using five years ago.

"Mostly, some of it is about as clear as mud, but at least we have some answers," added Ward 3 Selectman Ken Poole in response to the same question.

Some West Point Water and Light customers have questioned the accuracy of the new meters almost since they were installed. High utility bills seeped into the debate last spring and summer during city elections where voters installed two new Selectmen -- Poole, Turner.

Mondays meeting was a chance for those new members, along with Ward 4's Keith McBrayer and Ward 5's Jasper Pittman, to hear what the city, Sensus, which sells the meters, and Core and Main, the company that represents Sensus and is the city's day-to-day contact, are doing to insure accuracy.

Among other things are quarterly reports that flag unusual usage among water customers. City crews monitor usage on a monthly basis and check meters that appear abnormal.

In the last two or three years, 68 meters have shown problems. That's out of the city's almost 5,500 water meters.

"We are doing our own internal spot checks. We're just trying to make sure nothing we are doing is contributing to the bills," McBrayer said, repeating the purpose for the meeting and the information being discussed by Core and Main's Mark Snow and Kevin Beall.

Water and Light Manager Marion Marsac said the utility has had the Tennessee Valley Authority \run tests on electric meters to insure accuracy.

"We've been doing this kind of checking on both the water and electric side for quite some time," Marsac said, noting crews did find a single water meter problem in late summer. "If anything looks even remotely strange, we look into."

Several reasons can contribute to what customers think are high bills. Most notably, the technology is far better, which improves efficiency and accuracy. But now, that means customers don't get the free ride they once did.

According to Beall, the old-style water meters would only read a minimum of about a quart of water usage. The new meters will read a teaspoon so even the smallest of leaks registers. And the meters don't wear down with time like old meters, meaning they maintain their accuracy for years.

"These water meters are very sensitive. The little leaks and drips and things that weren't registering before are now. That's hard for customers to grasp," Snow said.

The same thing applies to old electric meters, which lose accuracy over time because so many moving parts were out and slow down. The new meters don't have that problem because they are electronic.

Beall noted the city has access to customers' usage every hour. In response to a question from Turner, he suggested Selectmen and city utility workers review bills in detail with customers to show them when and possibly why their use -- and thus their bill -- was higher.

Selectmen acknowledged a recently approved rate increase by TVA, which will be passed on to local customers, and cold temperatures this month will translate into more complaints about utility bills.
"From what I'm hearing, we don't have real problems with the meters. If we have problems, they are elsewhere," Poole said at one point.

The groups did agree to start a detailed monitoring and flagging system for electric meters like the one in place for water meters.

The manufacturer also will give the city a list of serial numbers for older batches of water meters where problems were found in about 1 percent of the meters. The city will compare its meters with that list for problems that still may exist but have not yet been discovered.

"That will at least give our customers a little confidence that we are doing everything we can to protect their interests," City Administrator Randy Jones said.

In other business, Selectmen:

-- Voted 4-1 to hire Columbus resident Stephanie James as a new cashier in the Water and Light Department. She was one four people interviewed out of more than a dozen applicants. She is a former bank teller at Trustmark Bank. Ward 5 Selectmen Jasper Pittman was the lone no vote. He said he couldn't support hiring someone from outside the city.

-- Failed twice to hire an assistant city administrator. Pittman motioned to name West Point minister Eddie Longstreet, but that motion failed to get a second. McBrayer then nominated Buddy Sanders, who was the recommendation of a study committee named to look at the position, but Sanders' nomination failed 2-3 with McBrayer and Binder voting for him and Poole, Turner and Pittman voting against. Mayor Robbie Robinson said Selectmen would discuss what to do next at their Dec. 12 meeting.