The system, which cost taxpayers $2.4 million, was supposed to be up and running in October. But City Manager Ed Burchins told city council members during a workshop Tuesday night that a recent test of the meters found problems.
The system is expected to pay for itself in savings by allowing city water and sewer departments to monitor consumption, detect leaks, and calculate the history of usage without hand calculation. Customers would also be able to access up-to-the-minute usage on their computers.
City Councilman J.D. Willis had asked Burchins on Tuesday for an update on the project that spans a 65-mile area. Willis said that council was under the impression that the new system "just about ready to go."
Burchins said a "dummy run" found that about 92 percent of the units were working properly.
"We did a test of 15 repeaters and three of the repeaters reset themselves," Burchins said. "That means we didn't get a full run and it didn't work. We are trying to figure out why the repeaters are resetting themselves."
Burchins suggested that council discuss in closed session how to proceed. He asked that the assistant city attorney be included in the discussion.
Burchins could not be reached this morning.
Mayor Tommy Parker said that Burchins and his staff will try today to contact Datamatic — the company responsible for the equipment and making sure that it works.
When Datamatic made its bid to the Laurinburg City Council in May 2011, the company was so confident in its product that it promised that the system would pay for itself in five years or the Datamatic would compensate the difference.
The company also said the devices would have a 20-year warranty and "that any failure is included under the warranties and guarantees of the system," according to minutes from a May 26, 2011 special meeting.
Council voted 3 to 2 to approve the contract that includes a separate$18,897 yearly maintenance fee. Councilman Curtis Leak and then council member Joy Ellison voted not to hire Datamatic. Council members Kenton Spencer, Parker and then councilman Herbert Rainer voted in favor.
Parker has since expressed some concerns about Datamatic, which is based in Plano, Texas. He said the city is withholding a portion of what it agreed to pay the company until the system is fully functional.
"They had someone here on the ground until October and then they pulled out," Parker said. "That concerns me."
Parker said he is also troubled by a lawsuit filed in August by the city of Santa Fe against Datamatic in an effort to recoup $4.9 million. According to that lawsuit, about 12,725 of the company's 36,000 meters stopped working there. The devices came with a 10-year warranty, but the company refused to replace or repair defective units, according to the complaint.
Like Laurinburg's system, the new units were supposed to save time and money by allowing utility workers to use a laptop computer to remotely read meters without getting out of a truck.
"Let's just say that is another area of concern," Parker said. "The manager and the city attorney will be making some calls today to Datamatic to get some answers. We are still confident that this problem works itself out."
Efforts to reach officials with Datamatic were not successful.
The city refitted the meters for about 6,200 electric customers to allow for wireless transmission of information. Water meters, which have a shorter lifespan than electric meters, were replaced entirely in order to serve the city’s 8,000 water customers, most of whom are within the city limits.
The city's old meter system will continue to operate until it is replaced by the newer one, officials said.