By Linda Greer

Globe Staff Writer

NEOSHO, Mo. - After crews have fixed leaks for months, the latest Neosho water report shows the city still cannot account for 49 percent of its water.

While a cause has not been identified, old meters and leaky pipes that are part of the 40-year-old system are possible causes, said Mayor Jeff Werneke.

Neosho's neighbor to the south, Goodman, has recently taken steps to replace 500 water meters.

The last of the old meters were replaced last month.

The project, which included replacing water mains, lines and meters, cost $2 million. The project also came with increased costs in water bills for Goodman residents.

Lost water, lost revenue

On April 18, Brian Harwood, a representative of Actaris Metering Systems of Greenwood, S.C., showed the Neosho City Council data from November to March after a test program to replace 20 water meters around town to compare water use between old and new meters.

Some of Neosho's 5,200 water meters date to 1968 and do not register low water use. The average duration of water meters is five to eight years, Werneke said.

New meters are designed to register extremely low flows, such as that from a dripping faucet, Harwood said at the April meeting.

Using four of the 20 new meters as an example, Harwood said the city would capture $12,000 in lost revenue and save 3 million gallons of water annually from just those four meters.

New meters tested at two locations reported an increase in an average monthly bill of $29.68 on an old meter to $229.71 with the new meter. Another went from $34.01 to $322.68 monthly.

The council asked Harwood to bring back information on all 20 meters.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Harwood said he set a tentative date of June 20 to return to Neosho with a cost proposal to replace all meters, a timeline for completion and a return-on-investment analysis.

"Of course, the council will want to know how long it would be before they saw a return on their money," he said.

Werneke said replacing all 5,200 meters alone could cost $1.5 million, and that might not be the solution to the water-loss problem. While the council searches for an answer, money is being set aside. The city budgeted $268,000 this year for meter replacement, he said.

The city already has committed itself to matching some large grants, including those for Howard Bush Drive Extension and the South Street Overpass, so seeking grants to replace meters is not a likely prospect, Werneke said.

Werneke said he thinks that now that a city manager has been hired, the city will have an opportunity to thoroughly investigate the water-loss issue. By June 5, Jan Blase will assume the city manager's position full time. He replaces Jim Cole, who retired in March.

Werneke said some municipal water is not metered, although the water use is estimated so that water is not part of the 49 percent that is unaccounted for. City water that is not metered includes that for Big Spring Park and the Municipal Auditorium, he said.

"Eventually, we need to put meters in all the municipal sites," Werneke said.

Goodman meters

The last of 500 water meters in Goodman were replaced last month, and the results will show up on the June bills, said Paula Chase, Goodman city clerk.

The city had been working on the $2 million project for a year. About half of the money was in grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program and the Missouri Department of Economic Development. The remaining $1.15 million was in a general-obligation bond on a 33-year note.

Besides installing new meters that should accurately read water use, the city increased water rates, and that concerned many people, Chase said.

"A lot of people don't realize how much water they use," she said.

Since 1980, customers had been charged $4 a month for the first 2,000 gallons and 80 cents for each additional 1,000 gallons. The new rates are $13 a month for the first 1,000 gallons and $3.50 for each additional 1,000 gallons.

Chase said the City Council opted to keep water rates the same for so long because sewer rates were increased in 1991 when a new sewage treatment plant was installed.

"The board held back because of that and let water rates slide," Chase said. "We should have been raising rates all along."

Chase said that as the meters were being replaced, some residents had concerns that the meters were registering water use too high. In same cases, the residents did not take into consideration the rate increase. In other cases, the meters are being verified, she said.

And in many cases, she said, the new meters are simply doing what they are supposed to do: register the actual water usage. Most of Goodman's water system dated to 1968, she said.

"Those old meters just give water away," Chase said. "This month's bill will tell more."

Chase said she suspects the rate increase and new meters will encourage customers to fix leaks and dripping faucets.

How old is your meter?

The following shows the oldest water meters still being used in area towns, according to city and water company officials.

Galena, Kan.Up to 15 years

GoodmanUp to one year

JoplinUp to 40 years

NeoshoUp to 40 years

SenecaUp to 20 years

Webb CityUp to 35 years

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