Jason Lawrence

Mansfield City Council 5th Ward representative Jason Lawrence, chair of the utilities committee, asks questions about a proposed water meter replacement program on Tuesday night.

MANSFIELD -- A proposed city-wide water meter replacement program could cost $18 million, though City Council was told Tuesday night the new system would more than pay for itself through increased water/sewer revenues.

During a 45-minute utilities committee meeting, Public Works Director David Remy discussed a proposed contract with Suez Utility Service Co., Inc., to replace the city's aging 19,000 to 20,000 residential and commercial water meters over the next 18 months.

Remy and Mayor Tim Theaker both told council that some of the city's meters are 30 to 40 years old and no longer accurately measure the amount of water being used, which has resulted in declining water revenues.

The installation of the new smart meters would likely result in higher water/sewer bills for Mansfield residents and businesses. When questioned by Councilman At-Large Don Bryant how the city would explain the increased bills, Remy said it would need to be addressed through a public relations effort.

Don Bryant

Don Bryant, Mansfield City Council At-Large member, asks a question during Tuesday night's meeting

In 2012, the city had $7.89 million in water revenues, a number that dropped to $5.75 million in 2018.

Mansfield's sewage revenue has actually increased during the period due to a significant rate increase imposed by council in 2016 to fund state-mandated improvements to the city's wastewater treatment plan.

3rd Ward Council representative Jon Van Harlingen expressed concerns sewer rates will "go through the roof" due to the more accurate measuring system.

"We are going to have to go back and look at water and sewer rates," he said. "That will have to be addressed."

Remy said the city had identified Suez through a "request for quotes" process, though the city worked with the same company last year to paint and maintain the water tower on Straub Road.

David Remy

Mansfield Public Works Director David Remy discusses a city-wide meter replacement program on Tuesday during a City Council utilities committee meeting.

The public works director said Suez would completely finance the project and the city would have up to 10 years to pay for the work. He said a conservative estimate is water revenues would increase by 10 percent annually, or roughly $3.7 million per year.

Daryl Bowling, who drove up from the company's office near Dayton, said Suez is a 160-year-old company that operates in 70 countries around the world and actually operates as a utility company in many locations.

"We have the knowledge to do this," Bowling said.

According to the company's website, "the implementation of a smart metering system requires significant support maintenance, technology and software expertise, as well as funding to cover the up-front installation costs of the advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and smart meters. As a result, smart metering systems are often out of reach for small and medium-sized communities. SUEZ Metering Asset Management Program was designed with those systems in mind."

Bowling said Suez will provide and install the meters, complete with radio frequency transmitters and 16 data collection sites around the city. Suez will host the server and do software updates, as well as maintaining the system, during the 15-year agreement.

The company will also train the city's employees on how to operate the system and to use the analytics available with the smart system.

"This system always pays for itself along the way," Bowling said.

CITY BUDGET APPROVED: By a 6-2 vote, with 4th Ward representative Walden Jefferson and 1st Ward Councilman David Falquette dissenting, Council approved a final 2019 appropriations budget.

The approval came after further cautions from Van Harlingen, the finance committee chairman, and Finance Director Linn Steward that the city must hold the line on expenses during the year.

Linn Steward

Mansfield Finance Director Linn Steward answers questions during a City Council finance committee meeting in March. Council met in virtual session on Tuesday night. (Richland Source file photo)

The city's general fund budget calls for $28,029,329 in expenditures, an increase of 5.5 percent over 2018's budget ($26,556,923). The budget calls for $26,155,403 in safety services, a decrease of 1.5 percent over last year's plan ($26,556923).

During a meeting earlier this month, Steward told council the city is able to use some carryover cash for certain capital projects and equipment in 2019, though there was insufficient revenue to set aside into the budget stabilization fund. i.e. rainy day fund.

She said general fund cash was able to fulfill $307,083 in capital requests, including $210,000 to the street maintenance and repair fund to purchase a new snow plow truck.

Jon Van Harlingen

Mansfield City Council 3rd Ward representative Jon Van Harlingen, chair of the finance committee, asks questions about the city's 2019 appropriations budget on Tuesday night.

More than $2 million in capital requests from various departments were not funded in the budget, including $300,000 for a new street sweeper, $228,644 for four new police cruisers, $400,000 for a new fire department storage building and $350,000 to replace the fire department's HAZMAT unit.

A significant cause for concern is the rapidly rising cost of health insurance for city employees. The city, which is self-insured, spent $6.2 million to provide healthcare for its employees in 2014. That number is expected to exceed $10 million in 2019.

The city is expected to pay $10,670 for its share of coverage in 2019 for a single employee. That figure jumps to $26,268 per employee with full family coverage. Those figures were $7,113 and $17,686, respectively, in 2014.

The city depends on municipal income tax for about 60 percent of its revenues annually and that number can swing 8 to 10 percent in a year, Van Harlingen said.

Theaker said he had already met with department heads about holding the line on expenses in 2019. Jefferson said that may not be enough and that cuts in spending may be needed.

Steward said the city, which emerged from state-mandated fiscal emergency in 2014, should strongly consider returning to the days it budgeted appropriations based on estimated revenue.

DRY DAM TABLED: A planned vote to enter into engineering services related to the construction of a regional detention basin, known as the North Lake Park Dry Dam over Touby's Run, was tabled until the April 2 meeting.

Council members had additional questions about the project and city engineer Bob Bianchi was unable to attend the session. Theaker suggested the vote be postponed until the engineer was present to answer questions.

The overall Touby Run Flood Mitigation Hazard Project has a projected price tag of $15.5 million, which the city has proposed paying for with sewer funds. The planned vote on Tuesday was just for engineering/design services, not the total project. 

Previously, Van Harlingen has said residents will question why sewage funds are being spent on dams and flood protection instead of sewage system improvements.

In response, Bianchi has said, "When we enhance the storm sewer system, we impact the sanitary sewage system by reducing the amount of storm water infiltrating the sanitary sewer system. We have always paid for the storm sewer out of sewage funds because of that."

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City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"