Action has been delayed on water meters that would allow Red Bankers to avoid sewerage charges for watering lawns and washing cars, according to the borough administrator. (Photo by Trish Russoniello. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
Where are the water meters that would let Red Bank homeowners irrigate their lawns without incurring sewer charges?
The secondary meters were a hot topic leading up to the borough council’s approval 18 months ago of $3.7 million in bonds to install new primary meters in every home and business, and to cover other upgrades to the municipal water utility.
Since then, though, there’s been little said about the meters — until last week, when the issue sputtered back to life.
One of two bonds authorized in February, 2016 provided $1.9 million to replace nearly every water meter in town, and install them in places they’ve never been, including borough hall and the town’s five firehouses. The other raised $1.83 million to cover the cost a new water well on Chestnut Street and other upgrades to the borough-owned water system.
At the time, Administrator Stanley Sickels said the meter bid specifications contained provisions that would allow residents to purchase second meters for their home irrigation systems, and thus avoid the 125-percent fee for sewer usage on water used on lawns.
Then-council President Cindy Burnham had lobbied for the second meters, noting that other towns allowed them, including Atlantic Highlands, which charges $200 for the additional meter, she said.
At last Wednesday’s semimonthly council meeting, Sue Viscomi asked about getting a second meter installed at her newly purchased home on Cedar Street.
“I wanted to get a second meter for my sprinklers, but they said it wasn’t possible yet,” Viscomi said of borough employees. “One of the great ideas of having all the meters changed was that you could have a separate one for sprinklers, so you weren’t getting charged for sewerage.”
Administrator Stanley Sickels said that officials “are contemplating doing that,” but want to get all 3,800 or so primary meters installed first, “and then evaluate what the impact of going to a separate metering system would be.”
The sewer portion of the fee includes costs for treating both sanitary waste and stormwater, “so before we take that [sewer] charge away, we have to see what the impact would be on the budget,” he said. “We still have to pay the sewer bill, we still have to pay for treatment, we still have to pay for all this work we do with the road program, pay for fixing and upgrades of the storm sewers. So it’s not just the sewage that goes in the toilet. It’s also the sewerage that runs down the gutter.”
That prompted pushback from Mayor Pasquale Menna.
“One of the arguments, for months on end” in favor of the new primary meters, Menna said, “was that this system would create the opportunity for homeowners to have a second meter installed so that they would not be charged the excess” fee.
“That was repeated over and over and over and over again,” he said. Now, “we seem to be getting a different interpretation,” he said.
Sickels said nothing had changed, but that members of both the public works and finance committees agreed that getting all primary meters replaced under an installation campaign that began last September was necessary before moving ahead with a plan.
About 600 of the existing meters remained to be replaced, Sickels said, and many of those are in homes whose owners have not responded to requests for access to their basements.
The new system enables the borough to get up-to-the minute usage reports without a visit to the the property for billing purposes. It can also alert the town to possible leaks and emergencies that went undetected for months under the existing system, proponents said. Data collected would be useful in formulating a plan for second meters, he said.
Sickels said officials were now “going to the next step” of alerting reluctant homeowners that they might have their water service turned off, or be cited for failing to provide access to the equipment.
Councilman Ed Zipprich, who’s on the public works committee, agreed that once the primary meters are installed, “Stanley can go forward” with the secondary ones.
“It’s always a hot topic” at the annual candidates’ night organized by the West Side Community Group, Viscomi told the council. “It’s kind of disheartening that we’re taking a long time to complete.”