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Missing water triggers questions

An enormous amount of missing water has prompted an investigation in Albemarle.

About 243,500 gallons of water — enough to fill about 12 backyard swimming pools — was pulled from a commercial building on East Main Street in May. The individual leasing the building — Chuck Nance — said the building is a storage facility that uses a minimum amount of water. In fact, he had the water cut off in January to prevent freeze damage.

“It was our understanding that the water was off when the bill came in,” said Johnny Knox, Nance’s maintenance manager.

The bill in totaled nearly $1,800. After receiving it, Nance took the matter to the city’s billing department. Since there was no billing policy to deal with that kind of situation, the matter was passed along to the city council.

“If the water wasn’t supposed to be on, I don’t see how we can charge them,” Councilman Chris Bramlett said.

The rest of the council agreed and the bill was forgiven in total.

However, that still leaves the question of where the water went.

“I think this is a bigger issue than this one instance,” Councilman Benton Dry said.

Since meters only work when liquid physically spins an apparatus in the pipe, it is unlikely the meter at 1310 E. Main St. went up on its own, city staff noted.  After double checking its records, the city’s utilities department determined none of their employees have worked on the meter since the water was cut off earlier this year. The only remaining possibility seems to be that someone else turned it back on.

“There are state statutes against that kind of tampering,” Utilities Director Michael Leonas said. “The fines are pretty extensive, and it’s a felony charge.”

However, since all it takes is a simple tool to turn a water meter back on, it is a hard violation to catch.

“Given the location of that building, given that the back is pretty much isolated, anyone going by to and from there could have taken that water,” Dry said.

While hard to catch, water theft isn’t common, though, City Manager Michael Ferris said, largely because it is impractical.

“How is someone going to carry off thousands of gallons of water?” Ferris said.

Instead, most excessive water bills are caused by leaky pipes or broken toilets, he said. In the rare instance when water is stolen, it is usually by someone on the property or someone nearby. Perhaps a neighbor filling up a swimming pool, for instance.

“This is an unusual circumstance,” Ferris said.

In the case at 1310 E. Main St., no broken or leaky pipes were found. There are no large water storage areas neighboring the property.

There is the possibility that a former tenant may have had access to the site, but Knox and Nance have not seen the person at the site since a couple of months before the water was cut off.

“I think we need to look at how best to … keep somebody from accessing (a meter) when the water is cut off,” Dry said.

One way to guarantee that is to remove the meter. That was what the city did at 1310 East Main St. after the high water bill was reported to it in June.

However, removing a meter is highly labor intensive, Leonas said.

“We probably do 100-200 turn-on and turn-offs every month,” he said. “That’s a cost we’d have to assign to somebody.”

Other options include putting locks or tags on the meters. But that has it’s issues, too.

“Somebody can always cut them,” Dry said.

So for now, the council has asked staff to gather more information about the incident at 1310 E. Main St. and on other meter options.

“I’d like to discuss this more at some point,” Councilwoman Martha Sue Hall said.