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Published September 18 2013

Harwood receives 'avalanche' of emails in response to $200 water meter penalty

HARWOOD, N.D. – City leaders here hope the threat of a $200 penalty will eliminate the problem of residents not submitting their water meter readings for billing purposes.

City Auditor Sherry Morris said an email she sent to city residents on Tuesday informing them of the penalty generated “an avalanche” of responses. The email stated that because of the number of people who don’t regularly submit a meter reading, there will be a “hefty penalty” of $150 if a reading isn’t received in any given month, starting with the November water bill.

“The utility billing program needs monthly readings for accurate billings,” the email stated.

Morris said Wednesday that her initial email was wrong, and that minutes from the Sept. 10 City Council meeting indicate the council members actually approved a $200 fine.

What the email also failed to mention, which Morris planned to clarify in a follow-up email, was that residents will receive three months’ warning before the penalty is imposed, City Attorney John Shockley said.

Mayor Bill Rohrich said the city of 718 people has a problem with about 20 to 25 residents who regularly not submit meter readings – though Morris said there were 80 households last month that initially didn’t report their readings, out of a total of about 300 households in Harwood.

Roughly half of the city’s households are equipped with electronic meters that allow for a close-up reading with a sensor gun, Public Works Superintendent Bernie Stasch said. Up until about a year ago, public works staff would read those meters, which Stasch said consumed about half a day and involved obstacles such as locked fence gates and dogs.

Residents with the older, self-read style of meter had to read their own meters and write the number on their water bill.

About a year ago, city leaders decided to return to having all residents manually read their meters rather than upgrading households with electronic meters that could be read from the street. Stasch estimated that outfitting all households with such meters would cost at least $50,000 with software and equipment included.

With flood control and other issues on the city’s plate, upgrading water meters wasn’t a top priority “when people can just walk downstairs and write the number down,” Morris said.

The city still reads water meters for about 10 households with crawl spaces that make the meters difficult to reach, Stasch said.

For those who are capable of reading their meters but don’t, “We’re just trying to force their hand,” Rohrich said, noting it takes him about 30 seconds to read his meter.

Stasch said some residents now forced to read their own meters have complained that city staff is being lazy.

“If it’s that big of a job, then maybe you need to pay extra money,” he said.

Harwood resident Tom Sopp said he was “astonished” when he read the initial email Tuesday, and after being told about the three-month warning period, he said he still believes the penalty is excessive.

“I mean, there should be some type of penalty, but I would think that $25 to $30 would be enough,” he said.

Rohrich said the city had placed reminders in the city newsletter and sent letters to individuals who weren’t submitting their meter readings.

“And it just didn’t seem to do any good, so we decided to put some teeth into it,” he said, adding he hopes residents will comply and the penalty won’t need to be imposed.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528