After going three years without working water meters, St. John the Baptist Parish residents will have to wait a while longer for a new system that promises to end issues with wildly inaccurate water bills for good.
The long-discussed multimillion-dollar project to replace all of the parish’s 17,000 water meters initially was targeted to start in early 2019. That was pushed back to May, then June.
Now, parish officials and the engineering consultant it hired for the project don’t seem to have any set date for when the new meters might go in. The reason is a legal holdup with awarding the contract to install them.
The new meters are needed because batteries that were installed in the current system in the early to mid-2000s and were designed to last 10 years were never replaced. That resulted in mass failure of the meters.
Greenup Industries, based in Gonzales, initially won the right to the “advanced metering infrastructure” project as the lowest bidder April 5. The company had a $5.5 million estimate for the project, about $200,000 lower than the only other bid the parish received, from Texas-based Aqua Metric Sales Co.
But Parish President Natalie Robottom’s administration later said Greenup’s bid was “non-responsive” and should be rejected because it didn’t use the correct bid form, added five line items to the project specifications and didn’t list an alternative cost amount.
At the April 23 council meeting, Robottom recommended accepting Aqua Metric’s $5.7 million bid to install the new meters.
But members of the council said they weren’t clear what legal responsibilities the parish would have in rejecting Greenup’s bid, since state law says that when a bidder is rejected as not “responsible,” it must be followed up with a letter stating why it was rejected and giving the bidder five days to respond.
Robottom, though, argued that those requirements did not apply in this case.
The council ultimately decided to defer approving any contract until the District Attorney's Office could review the legal requirements for rejection.
Greenup’s attorney also said it is “formally protesting” the parish’s rejection, even though the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality also rejected Greenup’s bid. LDEQ is funding a $6 million low-interest loan to pay for the new meters.
Awarding the contract was tabled again Tuesday night, since a legal opinion hasn't been received from the DA's Office. That means the project is essentially at a standstill until that opinion comes down.
The new metering system is supposed to have batteries that will last 20 years, with the meters sending out alerts when they get low. Data on water usage will be collected and sent electronically every four hours. A parish vehicle will not have to pass by and read that signal, which was the case with the old system; usage was measured that way once per month.
The system will cost about $16.5 million over the course of 20 years, according to parish officials. They said that price is cheaper than simply replacing the old meters or going to a system in which all the meters are read in person.