At the April 12 board meeting, and after six months of consideration and revision, Paonia trustees adopted Ordinance 2016-01, which governs the provisions of the town's water service, water taps, rate and fees structures. In December, the rate portion of the ordinance was approved under emergency measures in order to meet the requirements of the 2016 budget.
Following a motion by trustee Ross King to approve the ordinance, Dave Duncan approached the board to request a change in the language. Specifically, Duncan wants the word "uncover" removed from the section addressing "system prohibitions." Paragraph A of the section states that "No person shall: Willfully, negligently or maliciously break, damage, destroy, uncover, deface, tamper with or alter any structure . . . which is part of the system."
That means that citizens are forbidden by law from opening meter covers to read or examine their water meters.
Duncan said being able to read his meter came to the forefront of his attention when in February he received a bill from the town with a usage reading of more than 30,000 gallons. He has lived in the same house for 25 years and said his family never had a month where usage was above 10,000 gallons. He suspects the high reading is the result of a new remote-read meter installed recently by the town. If he's not allowed to read his own meter, he said he will move it into his basement and the town can read his meter remotely. "I'm willing to go that far just to see my meter and keep track of my usage," said Duncan.
Due to that one word, said Duncan, citizens who open their water meter covers become criminals.
Duncan noted that water companies using Paonia water have access to their meters. He contacted other municipalities in the county and was told that Delta will send a worker to open the cover upon request; Cedaredge does not have an ordinance addressing the issue and sees no problem with it; and in Orchard City, Duncan said, residents are encouraged to check their meters.
Crawford and Hotchkiss don't permit the opening of water meter pits, said Duncan. In Hotchkiss, citizens can be fined or put in jail.
Water meters are part of the town water system, said town manager Jane Berry. Essentially, they are its "cash registers," and protecting them is critical to operations. In most towns, said Berry, meters are located inside peoples' homes and can be read remotely. Since that's not the case in Paonia, the language is intended to protect the system, said Berry. "When we start giving carte blanche access to that part of the system, that's not good government."
In the past 12 years the issue of allowing citizens to check their meters has come up three other times, said Mayor Neal Schwieterman, and three times the board has elected to leave the language as it is due to liability issues.
Public works director Travis Loberg added that opening the covers also subjects the water line to freezing in winter. If citizens want to check their meters, said Loberg, they can contact the town and someone will open it for them.
Trustee Eric Goold motioned to strike the word "uncover" and insert the words "leave uncovered or unsecured." The motion failed, 4-2, with Kleinman and Watson voting in favor of the change.
Mary Bachran then addressed the board, requesting a provision in the ordinance that would allow people on fixed incomes or living below the poverty line to pay the rates that were in place prior to December's rate increases. Bachran suggested that the town could charge the lower rate to those who currently qualify for the state's Low Income Energy Assistance (LEAP) benefits through the Department of Human Services.
Stewart argued that the town would have to pick up the cost, effectively raising everyone else's rates. "There is a way to do this, and that is through charitable organizations," said Stewart.
Bachran said she is not suggesting the town use the same model as LEAP, but that it simply allow residents who struggle to make ends meet to pay a lower rate for their water. The differences of opinion, said Bachran, are philosophical ones, "and I say government should serve people and make considerations for those who aren't as wealthy. I don't see this as a bad thing; I see this as a social good."
The ordinance passed on a 5-1 vote, with Watson casting the dissenting vote. It will go into effect 30 days from the April 20 date of publication.