City mulls water utility tampering fee

LA FERIA — Frank Rios suggested at the last city meeting to start locking water meters because residents are tampering with them after their water supply is disconnected.

“We are losing money,” said Esmeralda Lozano, a La Feria city commissioner.

Currently, the city carries a $10 reconnect fee for residents who have their water utility shut off, but does not have a fine in place for water meter tampering.

A price hike may be coming for a reconnection fee and for tampering with the water meter.

“We don’t use the locking system here,” said Rios, La Feria city finance director. “When we disconnect somebody from their meter for non payment, we are just turning the valve.”

Rios reported at the last City Commission meeting that customers are turning their water supply back on after they are disconnected by simply turning their water valve on.

Rios did say many of the residents come in and pay their water bill by the end of the work day on the disconnect date.

He said on average, the city disconnects a total of 125 water customers a month.

Rios did not confirm if the average of disconnects was high or how much the city has lost in revenue when residents tamper with their water meter.

There are roughly 2,600 water customers in La Feria.

The city owns its own water plant and pays to maintain the facility and buys chemicals to treat the water residents consume.

Rios said when the city runs its bills, the system does not tell them when turned-off water meters are back on.

“We just run a bill and it picks up our consumption,” he said. “It does not flag accounts that are already disconnected.”

Commissioners expressed their concern at the January meeting about residents who tamper with their water meter after their water services are disconnected by city workers.

“I think the fine has to be stiff the first time to act as a deterrent,” Lozano said.

Lozano recalled her experience of having to pay a turn-on and unlock fee when her water was disconnected when living in another city.

“The shut off has to be more painful than $10,” said Eric Hoff, La Feria mayor pro tem. “When you lock it and then you have to go unlock it, it has to be more.”

He said tampering fees are normally $50 to $60 in other cities.

“If you cut the lock off it should be more,” Hoff said. “The people who keep up with their water bills won’t be objecting to a $50 to $100 (turn on) fee.”