With the clock ticking to comply with a state mandate, Woburn is preparing to install more than 10,000 high-tech water meters, and the upgrade costs may be partially absorbed by property owners.
Some City Council members said they are concerned about out-of-pocket costs for homeowners whose plumbing might need to be upgraded to accommodate the new meter reading system.
“My biggest concern is that young families and elderly residents don’t get hit with excessive costs,” said Raymond Drapeau, who represents the city’s seventh ward and had a new meter installed in his home as part of the city’s pilot project.
He said contractors had to tear up his lawn to locate a shutoff valve and install new plumbing inside his home, among other necessary upgrades. Drapeau, who declined to say how much the extra work cost, said he is concerned that other residents whose homes have outdated plumbing might have a similar problem.
Richard Haggerty, City Council president and alderman at large, said the city will be picking up the tab for most of the installation, and added that instances where homeowners need to pay for upgrades will be rare.
“For the most part, homeowners will bear no cost,” he said. “That’s not to say there won’t be situations where they might have to contribute something, but the vast majority of the city won’t have any additional costs.”
Woburn remains one of the few communities in Massachusetts that does not have water meters for residential customers. Officials had resisted installing meters in part because it might end the flat residential fee. Woburn households pay $205 a year for water and $328 for sewer, regardless of usage.
“I will be interested to see how much water we’re actually using as a city, because I’ve seen some anecdotal estimates showing we are one of the biggest users in the region,” said Alderman Mike Anderson, who represents the city’s fourth ward. “But we need to bite the bullet and get this done. It’s been put off way too long.”
City officials face a 2015 deadline to install meters at all residential homes as part of a 2006 administrative consent order negotiated by Thomas L. McLaughlin, the mayor at the time, with the state Department of Environmental Protection to address a number of deficiencies in the city’s water system.
“We don’t have a choice — we have to comply with the DEP order and we intend to so,” said Haggerty.
The project will get underway in May and is expected to be completed by the end of the year, Haggerty said. Although the council has authorized Mayor Scott Galvin to borrow up to $6 million for the work, Haggerty said recent estimates have lowered the price tag for purchasing and installing the new meters to roughly $3.6 million.
The city has hired Peabody-based engineering firm Weston & Sampson to oversee the project, while Thieslch Engineering of Rhode Island and USI Services of Bourne will install and service the new meters. City officials said they intend to give residents plenty of notice about when contractors will visit neighborhoods.
Haggerty and other council members said the new meters will allow the city to more accurately measure its water use, encourage conservation, and help identify potential leaks throughout the system.
McLaughlin signed the consent order in June 2006, in part to resolve a dispute over a pumping station that the city installed without state authorization. The city was fined $5,750 for the violation, and also had to submit a retroactive application for the station and conduct infrastructure repairs.
Most of the required upgrades overlapped with water projects the city was developing — such as a new filtration system and pipe relining — that would later be funded by a $33.9 million bond approved by the council in 2007. But new water meters, which the state sought as a conservation measure, were not included.
At one point the City Council voted to oppose the consent order, which prompted the state to threaten Woburn with $750,000 or more in fines if the city did not commit to a plan to install the meters. The deadline to comply with the order has been extended at least twice by state regulators.
Drinking-water issues have long been a political hot potato in Woburn, where the discovery of water-bound toxins from 1969 to 1989 were linked to a spate of childhood leukemia cases. The pollution forced the city to shut down several wells that remain closed, and was the subject of a federal lawsuit by eight families against two companies, as retold in the book and movie “A Civil Action.”
Woburn gets about half of its drinking water from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which provides treated water from the Quabbin and Wachusett reservoirs to 51 communities across the state. The city gets the remainder of its water from municipal wells.
For city officials, what also lies ahead is setting a new rate structure for residents once the new meters are installed. Some have suggested keeping the flat rate, while others favor using a tiered system where homeowners pay a fixed rate depending on how much water they use.Christian M. Wade can be reached at email@example.com.