If all goes as planned, installation of new water meters in St. John the Baptist Parish could begin as soon as June, as officials seek to end a two-year billing nightmare for customers after every meter in the parish's old system failed.
The parish’s Finance Committee — comprising the same members as the Parish Council — voted 5-4 Tuesday to move forward with soliciting bids for the new $16.5 million system, which will replace the approximately 17,000 meters that failed.
A request for bids should go out in the next two weeks, with installation of the first meters possible in June.
The first area to get new meters will probably be LaPlace, according to Rob Delaune, of Principal Engineering, which is consulting with the parish on the process.
It will take about a year to replace all the meters, Delaune said, but LaPlace should be first because it involves the most customers.
The parish also overcame a key holdup in getting to this point last week, when it closed on a $6 million low-interest loan from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to help fund the project.
Approval of the loan — part of the state agency’s “Green Project Reserve” — had been delayed for months after a quarrel between Parish President Natalie Robottom and the council over which paperwork needed to be signed.
The loan will help pay for the new meters in what’s called an “advanced metering infrastructure” system, different from the failed “automatic meter reading” system the parish formerly had.
The old system, installed in the early to mid-2000s, sent out electronic signals that were picked up once a month by passing utility trucks.
The batteries for that system were designed to last 10 years, but they were never replaced, causing a mass failure of the meters about two years ago.
Robottom acknowledged the parish was at fault for failing to maintain the system.
Batteries for “advanced metering infrastructure” meters are designed to last 20 years and will send out alerts when the batteries get low.
The new meters will record water usage every four hours, for a total of 180 readings in a 30-day month. Each meter sends out a signal that will be picked up by base stations on water towers. Customers will be able to check their usage online.
After the old meters failed, customers started getting wildly inaccurate bill amounts, in some cases well into the hundreds of dollars.
The parish responded by going to a manual reading system, and 90 percent of all meters are now read that way, according to Robert Figuero Jr., the parish’s chief financial officer. Figuero is now also overseeing the parish's utilities, after previous Utilities Director Blake Fogelman left Jan. 4.
Fogelman had a tentative plan to start enforcing water cutoffs for delinquent customers this month, but that has been put on hold, Figuero said. He said the parish should have a more definitive plan for cutoff enforcement in the next couple of weeks, as it looks to move to 100 percent manual readings before the new system is installed.
As for that new system, approval of the solicitation for bids seemed far from certain Tuesday, as Councilwoman Jaclyn Hotard pushed instead for a request for proposals.
Delaune advised against that, saying the request for bids was part of the approval for the DEQ loan and that changing the language might result in a three-month delay in installation.
Hotard, however, was adamant about using a request for proposals, which would give the parish more flexibility in deciding who should get the contract, rather than simply granting it to the lowest bidder.
Delaune said there are strict specifications that bidders have to adhere to, though, and that only three companies make meters that meet that standard.
Hotard said that was even more reason for the parish to have control over who gets the contract.
“This is probably going to be the most significant decision I will make on the council before I walk out the door,” she said.
Hotard’s motion to issue a request for proposals instead of bids failed on a 4-4 tie with Councilman Marvin Perrilloux absent.
The subsequent vote on authorizing the bid solicitation passed 5-4, with Larry Sorapuru, Kurt Becnel, Julia Remondet, Lennix Madere Jr. and Larry Snyder in favor.
Council members Michael Wright, Thomas Malik, Hotard and Perrilloux voted against it.