Some Fort Smith residents will see their water bills increase as the city installs new water meters, the utilities director said.
Although it is recommended that water meters be replaced every 10 years, 16,800 of the city's 36,589 meters are more than 10 years old, 9,500 of which are more than 20 years old, according to a memo from Utilities Director Jerry Walters to City Administrator Carl Geffken. Old meters often read inaccurately, typically lower than the actual amount of water used — meaning that some customers' bills may have been lower than they should have been but will increase when new, accurate meters are installed. Meters that the city tested on average were reading 21.3 percent lower than the actual amount of water passing through the meter. Some were not registering any water flow.
"This efficiency that we are looking for and desperately need is going to cause an uproar," At-large Director Don Hutchings said Tuesday at the Board of Directors' study session when Walters explained the issue.
Ward 4 Director George Catsavis referred to the federal consent decree that the city entered into with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2014. The mandate requires the city to make about $480 million worth of upgrades to the sewer system within 12 years, and sewer rates have since increased by 167 percent to help pay for the work.
"We're dealing with a consent decree. If they're getting free water, more power to them," Catsavis said.
Catsavis said that people are struggling as it is and this should be on hold until Geffken is able to renegotiate the consent decree.
"If we didn't have a consent decree, Jerry, I'd say fine, but under the circumstances, I think this needs to be put off and do it on a case-by-case basis if the meter is bad, but to do this to the people right now — I just can't see it," he said.
Because of inaccurate meters, some people are paying for all of the water that they are using, and others are not, Ward 3 Director Mike Lorenz said.
"I think it's only just and fair to all water users that each water user pay their fair share of what they're using," At-large Director Tracy Pennartz said.
Pennartz said it's common sense to have a replacement plan to improve the city's infrastructure that wears out over time and that the city does not know how much revenue it is losing by not charging everyone for the full amount of water they are using.
The study session ran later than usual.
"I got to go. Jerry, I'm going home. I'm leaving early to take my address off my house so you don't know where my water meter is," Catsavis said, joking.
The Utilities Department has already begun replacing water meters, Walters said after the session.
In April, the city replaced a water meter at Midtown Apartments, and eight days later, the pipes burst, causing more than $13,000 worth of damage to the senior living apartment complex and senior center. Geffken initially agreed to pay Midtown $5,000, the maximum that the city's policy allows it to pay for water line leak claims. The city has tort immunity, which means it is often not liable for damages, even if the damages are its fault. When Midtown's property manager Kerri Norman asked the Board of Directors to make an exception to the rule and pay for full damages, the board was split 3-3 with Pennartz absent, and the city did not make the exception for lack of a majority vote.
Now, the board will look into changing the city's policy. Catsavis made a motion at Tuesday's study session to add an item to the board's next regular meeting that would allow the city to pay up to $10,000 for water leak claims for inside meters, which can typically cause more damage than outside meters.
Lorenz had voted against paying Midtown the additional money. He said he did not and still does not consider making an exception to a current policy appropriate, but that he did want to look at changing the policy.
The damage at Midtown was partly the city's fault, Walters said. When staff replaced Midtown's meter and reassembled the pipes, they did not realize that the pipes were not secured from the walls.
If the city did not have a policy, it would not have been obligated to pay anything, Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman said.
Pennartz said that by paying anything, the city is admitting some degree of fault.
The board will decide whether to change the city's policy Tuesday night at its regular meeting.