A majority of City Council wants to hear from city utility customers before moving forward with an $8 million-plus project to replace all water and electric meters in Elizabeth City.
Council voted 6-2 Monday to put a hold on moving forward with the meter project until after a public hearing is held on Jan. 27.
The vote came after an almost two-hour work session on the meter project that included presentations from city officials as well as the chief executive officer from one of the major vendors for the electric meter conversion.
The city plans to replace all 13,580 residential and commercial electric meters at a cost of approximately $3.3 million. Replacing the city’s almost 8,000 water meters will cost approximately $5 million. All of the new meters will feature “smart” technology that will allow the city’s electric and water utilities to better manage the two systems while maximizing revenues.
City staff was seeking council approval Monday for contracts associated with the project. The city is eyeing five-year installment purchase financing for the electric meter project and 10-year installment purchase financing for the water meter conversion.
Several council members, however, voiced concerns about the project. They claimed the city, despite several years of discussions about the project, was moving too fast on something with such a large amount of money involved.
Councilors Gabriel Adkins, Darius Horton, Johnnie Walton, Chris Ruffieux, Michael Brooks and Kem Spence voted to postpone any action on the meter project until after the public hearing. Councilors Jeannie Young and Billy Caudle voted against the postponement.
City Manager Rich Olson expressed some concern about the delay. He noted the two interest rates for the project — 1.89 percent for the electric meters and 2.06 percent for the water meters — are only locked in until around Feb. 21.
“Staff is concerned because you have two outstanding interest rates,” he said. “We have done a lot of debt financing recently and the 1.89 percent is, I believe, the best rate that we have ever had, at least since I have been manager here. You have 2.06 on the water side, and that is another outstanding rate. If we delay, we have to put that back out for financing again. Staff believes that the interest rate we have right now can’t be beat.”
Young said she favored keeping the meter projects on track because city residents will benefit from a more efficient system.
“I know it is a large amount of money we are speaking about, but I think in the public hearing you are going to be pleasantly surprised,” Young said. “We are living in an era now where we are moving forward and our citizens want to move forward, too, with technology. We don’t want to lose these interest rates. I feel we have the interest rates and we are going to have to do this eventually.”
But Walton, council’s mayor pro tem, suggested the city revisit the project when council begins discussing next year’s city budget this spring.
“It seems like we are rushing into it,” Walton said. “There may be something negative that happens with the economy. We don’t know how it might go. There is no need to rush and sign contracts. I think we are moving too fast.’’
Olson emphasized to council again during Monday’s work session that the meter project will not raise either electric or water rates for city utility customers.
Electric rates, Olson said, may even go down and if that happens it would negate any potential “modest” water and sewer increases that may be proposed in next year’s budget to fund other needed infrastructure needs.
“From a customer’s point of view, they want to know if “my rates are going to go up?” Olson said. “I hope to lower electrical rates and it will save people more than what a (potential) water (rate) increase would be when you look at the total effect it will have on their bill.”