September 4, 2008 in Voices

Faulty meters cause free water

Cheney loses money, works to replace faulty equipment
Jeslyn Lemke Correspondent
 

CHENEY – Because of meter-reading errors, 25 percent of Cheney’s water has gone unbilled over the past three years, and the city appears to be out about $14,400.

City Manager Arlene Fisher and other city water staff members met this week with the companies that made Cheney’s water meters, which may be the source of the error that let 1.4 million cubic feet of water go unbilled. The water was dispersed to customers without them being billed, a loss that today totals about $14,400, Fisher said.

The city’s own utility building, Cheney Middle School and the Holiday Inn Express were among the 60 businesses that weren’t charged for all the water they used in the past three years.

Fisher said in an interview Tuesday that there was no foul play involved with the city not charging for water and reiterated that “it was a mistake in installation (of water meters) and meter calibration.”

The problem arose when city staff installed water meters in 2005 but neglected to properly adjust how the meters read how much water they were pumping, Fisher said. The meters were read incorrectly and this resulted in people not being billed correctly for over three years, she said.

The city is starting a five-year-program that will systematically replace some of the water meters. Officials also have taken steps to adjust some of the meters that were reading incorrectly.

When the report on the missing water initially came out in early August, City Council members asked if there was a way to rebill the parties that had gotten free water.

City Attorney Stanley Schwartz said at the Aug. 26 meeting that he’d checked into city municipal codes, state laws and state statutes to see if this was possible.

“I’m not optimistic about this, mayor and council,” Schwartz said, adding he was certain that city municipal codes don’t have provisions for the city getting its money back.

Over the years, Cheney has lost about 16 percent more water than the average city loses to unaccounted water, according to the city water report.

The problem was discovered when city water staff saw this 16 percent jump in 2004 and 2005. Leak-detection services were called in to examine the city water works – about 40 miles of pipes under the city’s hilly streets.

While water main leaks and fire hydrant leaks were repaired during this time, the main source of the problem had yet to be identified. City water staff members went on to inspect the city water reservoirs, but found no problems.

In 2007, city water staff members began looking into problems with their well pump source meters and discovered several were extremely old or outdated. They have begun a program to systematically replace certain meters within the next five years, starting this year.

It was unclear at press time why Fisher was meeting with the companies that made the city’s water meters or what conclusion the two parties found.

Contact correspondent Jeslyn Lemke by e-mail at jlemke12@yahoo.com.


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