Two Decades Later, City’s Water Metering Still Not Universal

Posted by Alexis Arinsburg, October 5, 2009

Even as the city ramps up its initiative to install wireless transmitters for water meters across the city, thousands of city properties still have no meter at all or have a meter that is not being used for billing. Two decades after the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) first began installing water meters through the Universal Metering Program, 49,595 accounts, or 6 percent overall, are still not part of the system.

That’s a bit better than in 2006, when 8 percent of accounts were still being billed under the old frontage system, which uses a schedule of fees based on building size and the number of sinks, showers, tubs, and toilets to determine the water bill. A small number of building owners still pay on a per apartment basis.

The most recent deadline for getting all water accounts metered was June 30, 2009. The deadline has now been pushed out to June 30, 2012. Why the delay and what is the city doing to make water metering truly universal?

In the wake of a severe drought, the city began installing water meters in 1988 as a way to reduce water usage by charging consumers for the amount of water actually used. It also helped the city comply with state water conservation requirements. The Universal Metering Program was to be completed in 10 years.

At the program’s inception, Department of Environmental Protection officials acknowledged that there would be challenges to metering all its customers immediately. Landlords complained about the expected cost increase due to metered bills, especially if they owned buildings that were home to large families or had plumbing in poor condition. Progress on universal metering also encountered some unexpected hurdles, including a 206-count indictment for fraud and labor law violations against the Kentucky-based company the city contracted with to do a large number of the meter installations. Flawed water bills have also been an on-going problem, likely undermining some customers’ confidence in making the transition to metering.

To address owner concerns about a jump in costs due to metering, the city has created several programs to ease the switch. There are currently 29,962 customers in the Transition Program for buildings with six or more apartments. Under this program a meter is installed but bills are still generated based on the frontage system. The idea was that owners would be in the program for up to a year and prepare for the switch to metered billing. The program was supposed to expire in 1997 but was instead extended annually until this year, when the deadline was pushed to 2012.

A New York State audit from 2008 found “no indication DEP was routinely transferring accounts from the Transition Program to metered billing.” It is reasonable to assume that Transition Program customers who remain on frontage billing do so because it is less costly than switching to metering.

There’s also a Pre-Transition program with 761 customers. While similar to the Transition Program, accounts in Pre-Transition had meters installed between 1988 and July 1, 1992, but owners pay a water bill based on $821 per apartment. Additionally, all accounts in the Pre-Transition program should have undergone an inspection or audit to ensure that there were no major leaks, and if leaks were found, they were promptly repaired.

There are currently about 700 owners who, after leaving the Transition Program, have enrolled in the Conservation Program for Multiple Family Residential Buildings. The program, established in 2001, remains a long-term alternative to metering for some owners of buildings with six or more apartments. To be eligible, owners must take steps such as converting 70 percent of a property’s toilets, faucets, and showerheads to low-flow fixtures. Owners are subject to periodic conservation audits by DEP. To encourage additional participation and to reduce the expense of installing fixtures that comply with the program’s conservation requirements, DEP is considering offering rebates for the installation of low-flush toilets, much as it did in the early 1990s.

About 8,600 customers currently prefer to pay a 100 percent surcharge on their frontage bill rather than have a meter installed. These customers, typically single-family residences, don’t qualify for either the transition or conservation programs. The Department of Environmental Protection is exploring ways to encourage these customers to agree to have meters installed and convert to metered billing. As with the accounts that remain in the Transition Program, presumably most of the customers still pay less than they would under metering, even after paying twice their frontage charge.

That leaves 9,500 customers still billed on a frontage basis who are not paying a surcharge nor are they enrolled in the transition or conservation programs. The Department of Environmental Protection provided no further explanation when IBO asked about these accounts.

When it comes to achieving the goal of universal metering first announced more than two decades ago, the city is still swimming upstream.

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