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The St. Mary’s Metropolitan Commission has agreed to spend $761,302 of its reserves to move ahead on a project to upgrade most of its water meters, starting by June.

National Metering Services of New Jersey won the $4.9 million construction contract to replace 10,800 water meters on homes and businesses over 18 months. Some MetCom customers already have water meters that can be read through a wand system, but 5,200 water meters are still manually read once every three months. About another 2,000 water meters will be upgraded in a second phase of the project.

Once replaced, the new water meters will send usage data to MetCom through radio waves, but the meters will not transmit continuously. “Ours will only send data when asked to,” said Dan Ichniowski, acting director of MetCom.

National Metering Services, as part of its contract, will start a web page to track the installation progress in individual neighborhoods once work begins. There may be a temporary water disruption for those on manually read meters as new ones are installed, Ichniowski said.

Older neighborhoods in Piney Point and in Town Creek in Lexington Park will not be included in this project. The water lines there are too narrow, Ichniowski said. New water meters would interfere with the water pressure.

Residential customers currently are billed for $18.18 a month for using up to 18,000 gallons of water every three months, plus water system improvement charges of $5.91 a month for homes and $7.09 a month for businesses.

The new meters will more accurately track water usage and water bills, in theory, could be reduced for some customers. MetCom will “have the option to do that,” Ichniowski said, the agency’s board members want to go to a use-rate structure instead of a flat fee. Customers could be charged by the gallon.

The new meters will also be able to more accurately track neighborhoods that traditionally use a lot of water in the summers to water lawns and gardens. MetCom is permitted to pump a limited amount of water from its wells by the Maryland Department of the Environment. MetCom can be fined for exceeding its permits.

Some MetCom board members wondered if the utility would get its $761,302 by funding the project up front. “Nothing’s in writing,” from the state about reimbursement, said Michael Mummaugh at the Jan. 31 meeting.

That money should be recovered in another loan at the end of the year, Ichniowski said.

“I’d hate to see this thing stop at this point,” said Joseph St. Clair, chairman of the MetCom board. More than $527,000 has already been spent on the design and engineering of the new meter project. “It becomes an operating expense if you don’t move forward with the project — it’s ugly,” said Rebecca Shick, chief financial officer of MetCom.

MetCom pulled the $761,302 from its water system improvement reserves. The account started at $1.4 million in the new fiscal year, then $300,000 was used for debt repayment, and then came the funding for the water meter project. “And by the end of the year it will be back up to a million,” Ichniowski said Thursday.

The MetCom board voted 3-2, with David DeMauro and Steven Willing voting against the funding to start the project.

jbabcock@somdnews.com