03/26/13 — Goldsboro water meter problems

View Archive

Goldsboro water meter problems

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 26, 2013 7:05 AM

Goldsboro city officials are working to decide how best to handle a problem that is causing the failure of automatic water meter reading devices throughout the city. For now, though, the only solution, said Finance Director Kay Scott, is the authorization of overtime for the city's meter readers as they strive to make sure bills go out on time and accurately.

The overtime authorization went into effect on Tuesday.

Another solution might be the hiring of another meter reader, but the Goldsboro City Council delayed taking that step on Monday after hearing from Ms. Scott about the problem during its pre-meeting work session.

The problem, Ms. Scott said, is that a high number of the 15,000 devices, which attach to the outside of the meter and allow it to be read by a mobile device, and which were installed in 2006, are beginning to fail -- 3,800 in November, 4,700 in December and 5,400 in January. And, once they fail, they are not being replaced. Currently the only solution, she explained, is to remove the device and then have a worker manually read the meter. That, however, takes time, and with the number of failures increasing, she was concerned about their ability to keep pace with the water department's billing cycle.

Fortunately, she said, the authorization of the overtime will help alleviate that problem -- at least for now.

"We've been getting them all done in the 40 hour work week until now," she said. "The authorization of the overtime will prevent us from having to estimate any bills."

The devices, she explained, typically have about a 10 percent fail rate every month across the city, usually the result of something blocking the signal, but sometimes the result of a faulty piece of equipment. This recent increase in failures, though -- up to 35 percent of meters every month -- appears to be the result of a bad batch of devices.

It's a problem similar to one the city experienced shortly after they were originally installed. Then, Ms. Scott said, the company that supplied them, Datamatic, was helpful in replacing them and sending a technician to help re-install them. This time, leadership changes at the company have resulted in a long delay in receiving a response to the problem.

But that, too, she said, hopefully is improving.

"I feel like we're starting to communicate now," she said. "We've started the process."

For the city council members, though, that wasn't enough.

After listening to Ms. Scott's presentation during the work session, they asked that she come back with a more detailed report regarding their options for the meters, including the possibility of finding a new supplier or even replacing all of the devices with automatic meters at a cost of about $4.5 million.

Their concern, Councilman Chuck Allen explained, is that paying overtime or hiring a new employee at cost of $8,800 for the rest of the current fiscal year and $39,000 for next year, is not actually solving the problem.

"The whole reason we did this was to cut staff and make it automated," he said. "My thing is, we're not fixing the problem."

But, Town Manager Scott Stevens noted, any solution beyond the overtime and/or the staff position to keep up with the meter reading is likely to take a considerable amount of time to implement, especially if the council were to decide to replace the whole water meter system.

"Any switching, to do that within six months to a year, would be very challenging," he said.