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$8.16 million meter bond sends up red flag

Date: 6/7/2013

By Carley Dangona

CHICOPEE — The city of Chicopee will not be receiving new water meters after the City Council unanimously defeated a motion to switch to electronic meters; citing the $8.16 million cost and data accuracy as reasons for its decisions.

At the June 4 meeting, the councilors voted not to authorize a loan request for the purchase and installation of 16,000 new electronic meters for the city, after much debate on the issue.

Vice President and Ward 1 Councilor Dino Brunetti read the motion into record. He said, "We would purchase new water meters for all customers, without an increase in fees." He explained that the new meters would create a "red flag" when an issue arose, electronically notifying the Water Department.

Brunetti added that city officials from the Water Department and the Water Commission said the electronic meters would eliminate the need for meter readers since the readings are conducted by satellite, saving the city thousands of dollars.

He said the antennas would be placed throughout the city and would be monitored by the Information Technology Department. Brunetti noted the city was saving additional money since it has an existing fiber optic network for the meters to utilize.

Ward 9 Councilor Jerry Roy said, "I have problems with this on a multitude of levels. The cost is number one, but I also don't like the fact that many of the antenna receivers would be placed on schools. How do we know they're safe? [Years ago] we were told that asbestos was safe. I'd rather be sure before jumping into that boat."

Ward 2 Councilor Charles Swider said, "Why fix something that works? I don't think we need to spend nearly $8 million for new water meters — there's going to be increased costs [for consumers]. I'm not for this thing, there's too many hidden costs that may place a burden on consumers."

Ward 5 Councilor Fred Krampits said, "It's a bitter pill to swallow. The water meters we have aren't being made anymore. I think some of the [savings] figures that've been thrown out may be a little too enthusiastic — I think it'll be a wash. We're coming up on the point where we're going to have to start replacing meters. Because the meters are obsolete, we need to make a decision."

At-large Councilor James Tillotson said, "This is a very complicated issue. There's no easy answer here." He questioned the accuracy of the data city officials provided the council with, stating that he took it for face value and hoped it wasn't propaganda. He explained that his dilemma was that while he understands something has to be done, he isn't convinced this is the best option.

Roy wondered why the issue had suddenly come to the forefront of the council agenda when meters have lasted for years. "Nobody saw this coming? All of a sudden, it's a race to the finish line. The timeframe doesn't allow the council time to dissect the numbers and the issue."

The issue was brought to the council's attention last month.

Ward 3 Councilor John Vieau said, "I don't like being motivated as a council because our bond rating is great. Only a handful of communities use this technology. I don't think blue collar Chicopee needs to be on the forefront for new water meters — or trash toters for that matter."

He continued, "I think it's time to wait. Everyone I've talked to has told me to be frugal with our money."

Brunetti brought up the issue of whether the three or four companies that produce the electronic meters would be around when it came time to replace the batteries or parts. He said that is the very issue with the existing meters — the companies are no longer in business, so parts and service cannot be had.

At-large Councilor Robert Zygarowski said his home has had the same meter for decades and he's never had to replace it. "I'm not convinced that we need to do this right now or that this is in the best interests of our taxpayers," he said.

The council approved Mayor Michael Bissonnette's appropriation of $240,000 of Free Cash to replace an HVAC system in the Public Safety Complex.

Brunetti described the existing system as "a dinosaur." He explained that the air quality in the complex is poor as a result of the dated system and the fact that the building has windows that cannot be opened since its initial use was a bunker.

He added that the money would not be wasted because if a new Police Department station is built, the old building would be repurposed.

Frank Laflamme, at-large councilor, said, "Some of the ventilation isn't working. The Fire Department is renting equipment [to compensate for the poor system] the faster we move on this, the faster we stop renting."

Tillotson said the biggest complaint he's heard from police and fire employees is that "it's too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter."

Bissonnette's other $240,000 appropriation from Free Cash for the purchase of Police Department cruisers was unanimously passed as well.

Vieau explained that the Ford Crown Victoria has been discontinued and the department is interested in acquiring Ford Police Interceptors to replace outdated vehicles. "The goal is to replace part of the fleet every three years," he said.

Vieau read a statement from Police Chief Thomas Charette. According to the chief, the new vehicles would "enable a cruiser to be assigned to each school resource officer to enable them to be available and mobile."

Laflamme noted that the smaller Ford Taurus Police Interceptor has been problematic for some officers to enter and exit. He said that the gun can became stuck in the console. He added the smaller cars have blind spots that impede police work.

City Council President George Moreau said that he liked the idea of replacing the fleet in stages because the city would not "be locked in" to purchasing a specific amount of cruisers. He said that enabled the department to purchase other vehicles if a more desirable model is created.

When the question of whether the SUVs were capable of chase, Swider explained the department only uses that option for serious felonies and that it is not a recommended tactic otherwise. He did note that the vehicles were indeed capable.

At-large Councilor Jean Croteau recommended all cruisers also be equipped with spike strips.

The council adopted the positive recommendation from its Zoning subcommittee for the creation of Chapter 275-70 entitled Medical Marijuana Facilities to its City Code to adopt the state law that was passed in November 2012 to allow the use of medical marijuana.

It also accepted the subcommittee's positive recommendation to adopt the new Federal Management Agency flood zone maps and subsequent Flood Plain Overlay District that will become effective July 16.

According to Kate Brown, director for the Planning Department, the changes did not add any residences to the flood zone.

Three motions to approve bond authorizations related to wastewater and sewers were passed unanaimously as follows: a $3.21 million to finance James Street Drainage, Lower Ingham and Bray Street Slope Stabilization, Empire and Clarendon Street Sewer Separation and Hearthstone Terrace Sewer Separation; $1 million for an integrated plan to explore alternative means to satisfy the CSP abatement; and an appropriation of $360,200 from the Sewer Surplus Account for designation to the Wastewater Special Account for Siphon Cleaning.

The council referred the $850,000 appropriation for trash toters back to its Finance subcommittee, where the matter is currently tabled.