If you’ve ever gotten an $80 utility bill one month only too see it soar to $400 the next, you know something is wrong with Amherst’s water and electricity meters.
Calling the system “somewhat broken,” mayor Mark Costilow asked city council Tuesday for permission to hire a private firm to read meters.
It’s a stopgap that will work six months to a year, he said.
Some batteries are dying on the meters that measure consumption at Amherst homes and businesses. But keeping well-trained staff is also an issue — one that the mayor said wasn’t solved by increasing meter readers’ wages.
“These problems have been going on a really long time. We haven’t ignored them, we’ve just learned to live with them,” he said.
Last year, council endorsed a $2.6 million plan to buy all-new high-tech meters for every address citywide. It would have provided radio-equipped models that would automatically report usage electronically.
Those meters would have eliminated the need for workers to travel around town making readings, which are recorded in handwritten ledgers and then transcribed for billing purposes, sometimes leading to mistakes.
They also would have lasted about 50 years each, with batteries replaced every decade or so, which would have saved a lot of cash over current equipment costs.
The plan fell through when bids for the equipment came in at more than $1 million over the estimate, Costilow said.
That leaves the city with many broken meters and more going bad every week.
“Honestly the only solution to fix it and bill customers properly is to hire an outside company to do Amherst’s meter reading instead,” Costilow told council.
Law director Tony Pecora advised that normally the city would have to request bids for a private meter-reading firm.
However, this circumstance rises to the level of an emergency, which will allow Amherst officials to make a quick hire without soliciting bids, he said.
Doing so required a two-thirds vote Monday when council met again, authorizing Costilow to make a deal. It’s expected to cost taxpayers about $1.51 per month.
“I won’t ask for something like this very often unless it’s a true emergency,” the mayor said, garnering words of support from council president John Dietrich and others.
Costilow has already started searching for other vendors to provide new, cost-efficient meters for the long haul.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
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