LUMBERTON — The Lumberton City Council during the final day of its two-day planning conference heard about a new meter system that could give residents more power over their utility bills.
Representatives from ElectriCities pitched replacing Lumberton’s existing meters for reading natural gas, water and electricity usage with a more expensive but more user-friendly “smart grid” system.
The new meters would transmit data to the Utilities Department as well as to a website and mobile app city employees and residents alike could use, according to Mike Settlage, operations manager for the North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency, which is managed by ElectriCities. That would allow the city to do reading without physically visiting the site, and enable customers to monitor usage and make adjustments to save money.
Utility workers manually check each meter around the city once a month to determined usage and a customer’s bill. The new meters would send out information about electrical usage every 15 minutes and about water usage every hour. They could alert Public Works when a meter is dying, when there’s an outage or when there’s a period of unusually high usage.
Lumberton has about 21,150 meters.
The mobile app boasts the same features. Customers could set high-usage alerts on their phones and watch in real time as their electrical usage goes up when they turn on the dryer, or as their water usage increases when a pipe leaks.
The smart grid would mean fewer trips for utility crews, cutting fuel and labor costs.
Linda Oxendine, director of Public Services, said some staff, like meter readers, may be cut, but most employees would be transferred to other positions working within the new system. That would reduce overhead costs for a department already struggling with increasing expenses and declining revenue.
If the city fully implemented the smart grid, it would cost about $1.27 million each year for the first five years to pay for the meters, the web-based system and maintenance.
ElectriCities and Public Services are asking that council consider a pilot program during which 200 electrical and 200 water meters would be converted. The pilot program would cost about $76,000, Oxendine said.
According to ElectriCities, pilot programs are already implemented in other towns — and the more there are on the “smart grid,” the cheaper the service becomes.
Oxendine said the more efficient system won’t lower rates, but would help residents cut back on usage to lower their bills.
“A lot of time, customers really don’t understand why their bill is the way it is,” she said. “… It puts the power in their hands to control their usage.”
The matter will be revisited at an April 9 Council Policy Committee meeting.
Switching to the new system would not affect a potential deal between Duke Energy and ElectriCities to buy ownership of four power plants serving Lumberton and 31 other towns, according to Roy Jones, the power agency’s chief operating officer. Negotiations on the proposal were disclosed to council during a closed session that lasted about an hour.
In other business, the council:
— Heard a suggestion by Councilman Don Metzger that the city’s travel policy be changed from reimbursement to a per diem system. Currently, council members are reimbursed based upon receipts they provided. A per diem policy would provide them with a flat-rate stipend for travel, meals and accommodations. City Manager Wayne Horne said that policy would be easier for staff.
— Considered a proposed policy for appointing people to boards and commissions. The proposed rules prohibit a person from: serving on a board when they have an immediate family member employed by a corresponding department; serving on more than two boards or commissions; and serving more than two three-year terms unless the council sees a need for an exemption.
— Considered implementing geocaching in the city’s parks and creating a policy to regulate the GPS-based scavenger hunt. Geocachers use their phones to locate a hidden item, swap in a new item and log their experience. A permit would be required to place an item. About 2 million people worldwide geocache.
— Heard a request from Teresa B. Johnson, administrator of the city’s Community Development Division, that the council consider putting $25,000 towards an Emergency Housing Repair program. The city’s repair program was funded by grants from the state Department of Housing and Urban Development, but the grant can no longer be put towards housing. Johnson said $25,000 could be taken from loans repaid by developers and asked the council to provide a local match.
— Heard an update on work at Northeast Park. Construction of the park’s five baseball fields is about 90 percent complete, according to Dixon Ivey, special project coordinator.
— Heard a year-end report from Ben Andrews, director of Inspections. Andrews said in 2013, the department issued 1,777 permits, performed 2,877 building, fire and housing inspections and collected $150,003.08 in fees. Seventeen buildings were identified as unsafe and five were demolished.
— Discussed creating a policy for naming buildings after donors. The policy would establish donation thresholds.