Contractors say meters installed to city specifications; oppose Jackson water manager’s stop work order

A water meter box at a home along Jefferson Street is several inches above the ground.
A water meter box at a home along Jefferson Street is several inches above the ground.(WLBT)
Published: Jan. 11, 2023 at 4:03 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A contractor is firing back at claims that a number of water meters were improperly installed, weeks after Jackson’s third-party water manager issued a stop work order on the installation project.

In December, Interim Third-Party Manager Ted Henifin ordered Sustainability Partners to stop work on a project designed to install some 50,000 residential meters across the city, saying that many of the meter boxes are not flush with the ground.

“They stick up way too high in most people’s yards,” he said. “So, my point was they need to get them back to where they should be, which is flush.”

Officials with Sustainability Partners contend the devices were installed correctly based on the level of the city’s existing water service lines, and that all of the meters now in use were signed off on by the city.

“That’s part of the contract,” said SP Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel Adam Cain. “They’re using the meters as part of the sign-off,”

Under terms of its contract with the city, SP would put up the initial cost to replace the meters. Once the meters are in use, the city pays a monthly fee for each device. The agreement states that before any device can be activated, Jackson must give SP a “certificate of acceptance.”

City must issue a certificate of acceptance prior to using meters after they've been installed.
City must issue a certificate of acceptance prior to using meters after they've been installed.(WLBT)

3 On Your Side has filed an open record request for a copy of those certificates of acceptance and is waiting for a response.

Meanwhile, Cain says the meter boxes are not flush, in large part, due to the placement of Jackson’s water service lines. To lower the boxes, the service lines would have to be lowered, something that would cost Jackson more money and more work.

Jackson entered into a “master utility service agreement” with Sustainability Partners in November 2020 to help the city procure and replace the commercial meters installed as part of the Siemens contract.

The following May, the agreement was expanded to allow SP to replace water meters for the entire city system. SP brought on a subcontractor to install the devices.

To date, about 30,000 residential meters have been replaced.

Sustainability Partners contract excerpt spells out terms of meter installation.
Sustainability Partners contract excerpt spells out terms of meter installation.(WLBT)

It’s unclear how many of those meters have to be reworked. It’s also not clear who would be responsible for covering costs associated with the retooling efforts.

Henifin says the contractor would be responsible. “They recognize this is on them to take care of,” he said. “It’s between them and their installing contractor to figure out how to fix it. And I’m still waiting on a plan on how they’re going to do it.”

Officials with Sustainability Partners wouldn’t say whether they agreed with Henifin’s sentiments. “I don’t know why the meters would need to be reinstalled,” Cain said, referring to the meter boxes.

When that work will be done also hasn’t been determined.

For his part, Henifin said it’s in the best interest of Sustainability Partners to do the work as soon as possible.

“Their contract is built on the number of meters and how many are actually sending accurate reads to the system,” he said. “So, it’s in their best interest to figure out how to get this thing fixed and start installing more meters.”

A prototype of the new water meters planned for the city of Jackson.
A prototype of the new water meters planned for the city of Jackson.(Special to WLBT)

Cain says SP is still working to determine a cost for the work but in an interview on Tuesday did not have that amount.

He says lowering the boxes would likely require lowering the service lines connected to the meters, something that could be an expensive undertaking. He also says that lowering the lines was not in the original scope or plan for the project.

“You’re talking about heavy equipment, digging up everyone’s yards,” Cain said. “That’s much more than replacing the meters and boxes that are falling apart.”

Cain says SP consulted with the city early on about the need to lower the service lines, but the city opted against it.

“The city concluded that wasn’t a good use of taxpayer dollars to spend that kind of money just to make meter boxes lower, especially since lowering the meter boxes doesn’t do anything to improve performance,” he said.

Cain says Henifin first contacted SP about the height of the meter boxes back in December.

He says the third-party manager was initially concerned that the placement of the boxes could cause meters to freeze in inclement weather.

[Read: Water plants hold steady, but some line breaks reported amid sub-freezing temps, city leaders say]

“We got the manufacturer involved, the vendor experts involved, to provide evidence that the height of the meter boxes... [has] no impact on the meters freezing,” he said. “The only thing you can do to keep the meters from freezing is actually lowering the whole service line.”

“The meter box has no impact whatsoever.”

The stop work order comes as Henifin suggests a new water rate structure that would bypass the city’s meter system altogether.

Henifin, who was appointed third-party manager as part of a federal court order, proposes replacing the city’s current water fee structure based on water usage to one based on the assessed value of a customers’ property.

[Read: Could your home’s value determine your water bill? A proposal from Jackson’s water manager could make that a reality]

However, he told WLBT in a previous interview the two are unrelated. “I wouldn’t want to presume we’re going to be going in any particular direction with billing,” he said. “I may have a preference to eliminate meter-based billing, but that’s not a done deal.”

“And, so, I think at this point, we’re under contract, we’ve got to keep these folks going until we know we’re not going to need meters.”

He said even if the city goes to a new rate structure, it doesn’t mean the city won’t need meters, saying the devices can still help the city with other things, including detecting leaks. “Even if we end up not using the meters for consumption, they may have some real utility for the city to help us monitor the system.”

Henifin could not be reached for follow-up comment.

Want more WLBT news in your inbox? Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.