A plan to replace all 8,000 water meters in Elizabeth City appears to be dead in the water.
On a 4-3 vote Monday, City Council voted against financing a $5 million project that would replace all water meters in the city. Council earlier this year approved replacing all 13,500 electric meters in the city at a cost of $3 million.
Monday’s vote was the second time council stopped the water meter project from moving forward.
Councilors Gabriel Adkins, Darius Horton, Johnnie Walton and Michael Brooks all voted Monday against financing the project. Council members Billy Caudle, Jeannie Young and Kem Spence voted to move forward with the project. Councilor Chris Ruffieux was absent from the meeting.
Walton said he was concerned about spending millions of dollars in the current economic conditions surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak and advocated a slower approach to replacing the water meters.
“It’s a lot of money,” Walton said. “I think, initially, we don’t need to go up to $5 million. We don’t know if there is going to be a recession or not. You don’t have to do it all at one time.”
Following the vote, City Manager Rich Olson suggested the city likely won’t pursue the water meter replacement project further.
“We have been working on this for five years now,” he said. “(Council’s) vote killed it and I don’t believe it is worth any additional staff time to further these discussions. (Council) decided that you don’t want to do the financing associated with the project, then the project disappears.”
City Council first put the brakes on the project in January, asking Olson to provide the pros and cons of selling the city’s water and sewer system to an investor-owned utility. That plan gained no traction and city staff started the water project financing for a second time.
After Monday’s vote, Young asked Olson for a potential timeline if council decided to revisit the water meter project for a third time. Olson had earlier told council that Monday’s meeting would likely be council’s last for at least a month because of the COVID-19 crisis.
“I would say July or August at the earliest,” Olson said of restarting the project. “We are heading into a new area of not having council meetings. It definitely sets us back three, four months.”
Olson told council that the city could also have a hard time getting banks to again submit financing bids. Four banks bid on the water meter project the first time but only one bank submitted a bid after the proposed project was delayed in January. Because interest rates have recently dropped the city actually got a lower interest rate — 1.78 percent as compared to 2.07 percent — that would have saved the city around $42,000 in interest over the length of the 10-year loan.
“I don’t know if we would get anyone to bid on this because it takes them (banks) a lot of energy to put together one of these bids,” Olson said.
The proposed new water meters would feature “smart” technology that would have allowed the city’s water utility to better manage the system while maximizing revenues. Olson told council that the water meter project would have paid for itself in just over six years as more efficient meters are expected to increase water revenues by 5 percent.
Smart meters would allow city water customers to see their usage in real time. They also would detect leaks almost immediately by flagging deviations in a customer’s water usage.
“This will allow us pick up low volume leaks,” Olson said during a council work session prior to Monday’s regular meeting. “If a toilet is running, after 30 days that could be as much as 20,000 gallons. We will be able to recognize that within a day, two days.’’