SN&R investigation into Sacramento’s water-meter install saves taxpayers at least $65 million. But could city save even more?

Last fall, investigative reporter Joe Rubin lifted the lid on the city’s nearly-half-billion dollar water-meter-install project. What he found was alarming. A rundown:

  • Sacramento was spending nearly $400 million more on the project than neighboring Fresno, and to install a nearly identical amount of meters (105,000).
  • Specifically, Sacramento was spending more than $45 million to install meters in sidewalks, whereas most cities subject to the state’s meter mandate put them in lawns or landscape and saved that amount.
  • Sacramento was digging up 175 miles of roads to install new water mains and pipes. But they hadn’t researched whether the old mains or pipes needed to be replaced. According to the city auditor, they were putting in new ones irrespective of the old ones’ condition.

Rubin’s story hit newsstands on November 13. A couple weeks after, by Thanksgiving, City Hall was changing its tune.

City Manager John Shirey, in a memo to council members and senior staff, announced that he wanted to speed up the installation of meters and also to review the program to see if there were unidentified cost savings.

He was doing this not because of Rubin’s investigation, mind you. He was doing this because of the drought, he said.

Nevermind the reasoning. Now, the city has reviewed the water-meter project and come up with changes.

Foremost: Sacramento now plans to move up its install deadline four years, to the end of 2020. The Department of Utilities, which is overseeing the plan, is also holding off on some main and pipe fixes.

This will save the city approximately $65 million, the DOU says.

City council is set to vote on the staff recommendation tonight. The savings and the more expeditious install is good news.

But there remain uncertainties about the project.

For instance, will the city continue to install meters in sidewalks, as opposed to the more affordable option of lawns or landscape? It’s unclear as to what the guidelines will be for landscape versus sidewalk installs.

The Department of Utilities said in this week’s staff report that it will “reduce the number of water meters to be installed in sidewalks by installing meters adjacent to the sidewalk where feasible.” 

But the report contains no hard-and-fast details or numbers, and it still says that Sacramento will spend an extra $42 million putting meters in sidewalks, even though other cities subject to California’s meter mandate, like Fresno, have done their installs without digging up any concrete.

Absent in the report is also discussion of researching and analyzing the condition of city water mains. A big criticism of the original plan, both by the city auditor and outside experts, zeroed in on how the DOU was unwise to abandon some 12,000 backyard water mains and install new ones in streets without looking into the condition of existing old ones.

Anway, the point is that there are still many unanswered questions. Look for more water-meter install coverage on this blog later in the week and in next week’s SN&R.

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