WARRENSBURG - For decades, households and enterprises in Warrensburg have paid a set annual fee for use of water instead of paying for how much they used.
For many years, people have paid a set fee for water, whether they used 10 gallons a year or 100,000.
By next year this may change. The town government has taken a major step in converting to metered water usage.
In a split vote March 11, the Warrensburg town board awarded a bid of $169,639 to pay for updated water meters, transmitters and computer software for remote water meter reading and billing.
Board members said the move will save water and energy and make water billing equitable rather than arbitrary.
"The purpose of this project is twofold - it's for conservation and fairness," Supervisor Kevin Geraghty said.
"People and businesses who use water the most should pay for it, and those who conserve water should be paying less," he said.
The cost of upgrades is partially offset by a $66,840 state grant, and the board will be seeking to fund the remainder with grant money too.
"Our vendors know we will be accomplishing this piecemeal as we obtain the money for it," Geraghty said.
Now, water rates are fixed at $102 annually for a household, whether the family members - one or 6 or 12 - use 10 of thousands of gallons or virtually none at all.
Commercial rates are also based on a subjective assessment, water department. foreman Wayne Reed said.
"I don't feel individuals should pay for others' green lawns or pay to fill their swimming pools," he said.
Water meters have been in place in area households since 1993 - when the town board mandated their installation - but town government has since never taken action to put them to use.
The upgrades will allow the meters to be read remotely by a town employee passing by in a vehicle, Reed said.
The meter-reading device plugs into a laptop, which at the end of a shift can upload the information into a billing system, he said.
The 750-or-so existing water meters in homes in the Warrensburg water district - primarily in the hamlet - will need to have a transmitter installed, a simple process to be conducted by a town employee, officials said. Transmitters for existing meters would account for $56,000 of the project total, they said.
U.S. government data indicates that municipalities converting from a fixed rate system save a minimum of 10 percent in water usage because people are prompted to monitoring their water consumption to save money.
Last year, households and businesses in the Warrensburg water district used 155 million gallons of water, and have in the past used as many as 175 million gallons.
For years, town officials have said that many people let their taps and toilets run water unnecessarily to avoid simple repairs. In the early 1990s, a considerable number of homeowners ran water through their faucets all winter long to avoid freeze-ups, costing other water district residents dearly. The practice has subsided substantially as water lines have been properly insulated, town officials said.
The water district operates with a budget of $275,000 to $300,000 a year - primarily for utilities, chlorine, labor and maintenance - and about $70,000 of that sum is for electricity alone, Geraghty said. Electric pumps in the town's four groundwater wells pump water on demand into a storage tank above Alden Ave.
The project's cost will likely be offset by an estimated $95,000 in revenue from selective logging of a parcel of water district land, Geraghty said. The town board has recently held off on logging the land as planned because of temporarily depressed timber prices, he said.
The town will first upgrade existing meters with transmitters and install a small number of new meters, then set rates, with a target date of billing on usage by spring 2010, Geraghty said.
Under the new system, some commercial establishments now paying arbitrary rates according to business category may see their water bills reduced, while others may see them increase, Geraghty said.
The wasted water under the existing non-metered system puts an excessive financial burden on not only the water district, but the town's sewer system as well, Reed said.
Cutting water usage could save sewage plant operation expenses as well, he said.
The vote vote wasn't unchallenged.
Board members Austin Markey and Dean Ackley voted no on the resolution, citing that committing money during the economic slump as not prudent.
Geraghty responded that the town would be actively seeking more grant funds, and accomplishing work as it obtained money.
Reed said the upcoming metered/computerized system detects leaks and excessive usage, and households and businesses will likely be notified as a courtesy to help them conserve water and minimize their water bills.