The purchase and installation of about three dozen new water meters is expected to pay off within 18 months.
City officials are hoping to wring more money out of the city's largest water customers by installing new state-of-the-art meters.
Officials have agreed to buy 37 new meters intended to improve the accuracy of measurements for high-use customers. Exact locations have not been determined.
For an initial investment of $47,000 -- plus another $17,000 or so for installation -- the city can expect to receive an additional $56,000 a year thanks to the boost in accuracy, according to a proposal from Metron-Farnier L.L.C., the company that sells the meters.
While the city has about 450 large meters that are unable to read low flows of water -- anything less than 4 gallons per minute -- the new "Spectrum" meters will be able to tabulate even a relative trickle, or 1/4-gallon per minute.
By reducing the free flow of water, city officials expect the city's cash flow to rise.
"The city has been subsidizing some people," said Erv Hodges, a Lawrence city commissioner. "They have been using water that has not been metered. "
"No one's done anything wrong. No one's stolen any water. We've just not been able to meter it, and this should pick that up."
Wichita officials bought into the process, and tested out new meters on apartments, churches and office buildings, plus a factory, medical clinic, military complex, rural water district, school, shopping mall, utility substation, car wash and a single residence.
Officials discovered that the new meters allowed the city to collect fees for water used during traditionally low-use periods, such as overnight and on weekends. By expanding the meter program to nearly 1,500 accounts, the city found it could collect an additional $834,000 a year -- or enough to recover the cost of the new meters within three years.
Such a move in Lawrence would cost about $750,000, and allow those costs to be recovered in 18 months, according to Metron-Farnier.
If such a move took place, city officials wouldn't expect much debate from the public. Customers merely would be getting less free water.
"They're there to pay for what water they use," said Ed Mullins, the city's finance director. "They're not going to disagree with paying for the water they're consuming."
Such a move also would have financial effects beyond water fees.
Because the city bases its sewer charges on the amount of water used, some customers could expect their sewer bills to increase as well.
Hodges, who worked as the city's utilities director in the mid-1970s, said the new meters offered a chance for the city to upgrade its aging infrastructure. The new meters are said to have fewer moving parts, and therefore require less maintenance.
"Technology's finally catching up," said Hodges, who managed sales of water meters and other equipment for Kennedy Value Co. in the late '70s. "We want to see exactly what the results are. If it's worthwhile, then we can proceed further."
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Fifty of the city's existing water meters soon will be equipped with radio-reading equipment, a move intended to make things easier -- and more efficient -- for the city's meter readers.
The city has about 300 difficult-to-read meters, most of them downtown, at the Hillcrest Shopping Center or at Stouffer Place Apartments at Kansas University, said Ed Mullins, the city's finance director.
By switching from manual checks to radio signals for measurements, officials hope to reduce the time and effort required. If the first phase pays off, the remaining meters could be converted in the next several years.