WAITSBURG – How to deal with a reported increase in water meter tampering became a topic of discussion at the March 15 city council meeting. The council is hopeful that the problem can be mitigated when the meters are replaced in the future.
In his monthly update, City Manager Randy Hinchliffe, said that the city was working on the water meter replacement project and has met with a vendor who provided a cost estimate for replacement and installation of the city’s water meters in excess of $300,000.
Last October, Hinchliffe told the council that new state regulations allow cities two years to formulate a plan on how to remove all lead from their water system. They then have 15 years to complete the removal process. In Waitsburg, the lead is in the meters themselves.
Hinchliffe went on to say that the city has seen an increase in meter tampering and water theft.
In one incident an individual placed an RV on a lot, tunneled over to an adjacent lot, and hooked his RV up to their faucet. Once the situation was discovered, the city turned the water off. When they turned it back on, the individual hooked up again until the city found out and locked the faucet. The RV owner then cut the lock off and hooked up again, Hinchliffe said.
In another instance, an individual asked a public works employee what the penalty was for getting into his own box, which is city property. When he learned that there was none, he purchased his own valve wrench to turn the water on and off, rather than allowing a public works employee to do so, as requested by the city.
One person repeatedly turns their water back on after it has been turned off by the city. Hinchliffe said that because the box is older, there is no lock for it and the city would be forced to move the box or fill it with dirt in order to prevent it from being turned back on by the resident.
He said there was one instance where an individual kept cutting off locks until the city was forced to remove the meter.
“There’s currently no penalty or deterrent for tampering with the boxes, and we’d like some guidance on how to proceed. Are you interested in imposing a penalty or fine for being in the boxes without permission? Right now, it’s basically, ‘you break it, you fix it,’” Hinchliffe said.
Hinchliffe said the meters are all different and many are old; some require a half turn, while others require a full or quarter turn. It would be easy for someone to accidentally turn a valve too far and break it. He said one irrigation company cut from the wrong side of the meter box and 10 homes were out of water for several hours while the city made repairs.
Councilman KC Kuykendall said it is important to deal with criminal activity, or theft of services, differently from homeowners turning their own valves on and off.
“I can’t, for the life of me, see why we would ever want a policy that says a homeowner can’t walk out to his yard to shut off his main so he could do plumbing repair. I don’t think that’s a good use of city employee time to do routine city water main turn-ons and shutoffs. If there’s a problem with someone that’s vandalizing it then that’s destruction of property and should be dealt with differently,” he said.
Hinchliffe said the concern is residents breaking the valves so that a five-minute turn-off is turned into a several-hour repair.
“If you don’t know which meter you’re dealing with, how many turns it takes, or how long it’s been since it’s been exercised, you can break them real easy. That’s our big fear. We don’t want to spend hours and charge a homeowner $400-$500 because they didn’t want to wait five minutes for someone to come by and turn it off,” Hinchliffe said
Mayor Marty Dunn asked if shutoff valves could be placed on the landowners side of the meters, so that a property owner could shut it off without affecting the meter, when the new meters are installed.
“Perhaps we can offer emergency shutoff valves at a small cost to the homeowner,” he said.
Hinchliffe agreed with the idea and said the city encourages homeowners to put shutoffs in their own homes, but many have older homes that don’t have them, or they just may not know where they are.
Dunn said the council would “put their heads together” and continue to look into the problem.