Billboard raises questions over Idaho Falls water meters

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IDAHO FALLS — A billboard posted by political action committee Businesses for Growth over the weekend suggested that Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper was considering the citywide installation of water meters at a price tag of $87 million.

A closer look at the issue shows that such a proposal to install meters in water residences has not yet been passed by the City Council.

The Water Facility Plan was adopted by the Idaho Falls City Council in August 2015. Its purpose is to help leaders plan for future improvements or developments with the city’s water infrastructure.

A section of the plan references $87 million as the total cost if the city were to require citywide water metering. That is an estimated data point in a plan, and not a recommendation.

“The information presented … should not be interpreted as a recommendation to implement a citywide metering program. Instead, (it is an) estimate of the potential rate impacts associated with such a scenario,” the report shows.

Multiple City Council members and city employees confirm there is no plan currently in place to implement citywide water metering.

So why is water metering being talked about?

Idaho Falls is one of the largest unmetered cities in Idaho, meaning every household pays the same flat rate for water regardless of how much is used.

While residential metering isn’t in the works, efforts are underway to install water meters for businesses.

The Water Facility Plan includes a recommendation that all new commercial developments be metered — particularly those that use a great deal of water. As such, the city has dedicated $250,000 every year to installing water meters on the largest unmetered businesses.

“We’ve been installing meters since 2015 on some non-residential businesses,” Idaho Falls Public Works Director Chris Fredericksen tells EastIdahoNews.com. “The city pays for the meter on an existing building but when a new business comes in, it’s their responsibility to pay for the meter.”

As of Monday, out of the 25,103 Idaho Falls water customers, there are currently 424 bill-metered connections in Idaho Falls and they are all commercials properties.

The city ordinance does give the water superintendent the discretion to install a meter for any commercial development that he or she sees fit. For example, businesses that use a large amount of water, such as a carwash or hotel, could be metered.

My house has box labeled water meter on it. Doesn’t that mean I’m metered?

If you have a newer home, or if you’ve had your water infrastructure rebuilt on an older home, you may have a box or a manhole area that says “water meter” on your property. That’s doesn’t mean you’re necessarily metered — it just means you have a water meter vault or pit.

“If the time comes that a meter needs to be installed, the vault is the place to put it,” Fredericksen says.

Water meter vaults are mandated to be built on all new construction, both residential and commercial, by a state law passed in March 2007.

“All new residential construction has meter vaults and as the city water division works to replace old service lines, we are installing meter vaults at those lines,” Fredericksen says. “That’s why some older homes have the vaults.”

We’re not metered, but why are my rates going up?

Without water meters to charge for increased or decreased usage, the city relies on a flat rate to maintain its infrastructure.

Given the age of some water pipes, officials say the rate needed to be raised in order to maintain the system. The water plan included a recommendation that the city of Idaho Falls increase water rates over a five year period.

“There hadn’t been an increase in a number of years and this was meant to get us on par to fund improvements,” Fredericksen says. “Water rates can only be used to fund water improvements and some of our lines are over 100 years old.”

In 2015, water rates increased 20 percent followed by a 5 percent increase every year from 2016 to 2020.

“This will help us pay for improvement and maintenance costs plus keep our water system viable,” Fredericksen says.

Where do the mayoral candidates and elected officials stand on water metering?

Mayoral hopeful Barbara Ehardt, who is a member of the City Council, is opposed to water meters due to their high costs and believes there are better ways to preserve water. She doesn’t think it is worth what it would cost.

“If water becomes enough of an issue that we need to do something, (we could implement) odd-even watering day or hire summertime seasonal employment to issue citations to people running water down the sidewalk or in the streets,” Ehardt said during an EastIdahoNews.com mayoral forum Monday. “There are so many things we can do before we think about spending 90 million on metering.”

Mayor Rebecca Casper said she believes water meters are a tool that could be used to reduce the amount of consumption.

“Obtaining new water rights is not easy. You can’t just obtain water rights these days,” Casper said, “In order for us to have water for growth and be able to supply water coming out of the tap for future development, we’ve got to be able to figure out where that water is going to come from. At some point the council is going to have to grapple with whether annexing more land and pull in those water rights or find other ways to encourage conservation.”

When asked whether the city could afford the huge cost, Casper said during a Bonneville County Republican Party Debate in October, “We can afford anything that we can plan for.” Opponents have pointed out that regardless of how you plan, someone is going to have to pay for the meters.

Casper appears to be the only elected city official who has spoken positively about the prospects of installing water meters in private residences.

Before water meters become a reality for homeowners, the idea will have to get approved by the City Council. At the moment, passage of such an ordinance seems unlikely, but it is noteworthy that in April, the city put out a Request for Proposal for potential contractors asking them to bid on installing water meters throughout Idaho Falls.

Some believe this is evidence that the city is considering water meters for residents as a serious possibility in the near future.

The billboard

As for the billboard, Businesses for Growth PAC Chairman Adam Frugoli says it is going to be replaced shortly with a new message.

“The billboard has fulfilled its purpose. That purpose was to alert residents of a serious issue headed their way that will impact their wallets,” Frugoli said in a statement to EastIdahoNews.com. “After just two days, everyone is now informed of the tremendous cost and that Mayor Casper continues to be in favor of water meters and that Barbara Ehardt is firmly against it. The press has now covered the issue for the first time. Mission accomplished. We are moving forward to other issues.”

You can learn more about the water plan by clicking here and click here to watch the work meeting where the Water Facility Plan was discussed.

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