Butte-Silver Bow is making a renewed push to get more than 8,000 households on meters that measure precisely how much water they use so they can be charged accordingly.
Most customers use less water and save money when they switch from flat rates to meters, officials say, and it helps conserve Butte’s water resources as well.
Of 15,942 water accounts in Butte, just 7,522 — or 47 percent — are metered. The rest pay flat rates. All customers are metered in Billings, Great Falls, Helena and Kalispell, 99 percent are in Bozeman and 84 percent are in Missoula, according to a Butte-Silver Bow analysis.
Almost everyone in Butte was on a flat-rate system when the county bought a previous private water company in 1992, said Public Works Director Dave Schultz.
“We have worked to get quite a few meters installed, but we are still far behind the curve as far as being a metered system goes,” he said.
They want to change that in a big way over the next few years.
“We want to get as many (on meters) as we possibly can,” said Dave Palmer, Butte-Silver Bow’s chief executive. “We can’t force them to do it, but some people don’t want to go on meters because they think they are saving money now."
That’s usually not the case, officials say.
The minimum metered rate is just under $29 a month and when usage is factored in, the average bill last year was just over $40. That was about $18 less than the average flat rate.
Usage typically drops 20 to 25 percent when people switch to meters, in large part because they have a stake in their bills, Schultz says.
Through its renewed push, the county plans to set aside money specifically for meters and wants everyone to know it will install them for free as long as there’s a frost-free location to put them.
“If it is a house trailer or something like that where there is no frost-free place to put a meter, they have to have a meter pit put in at the front of their property,” Schultz said.
The county will still provide the $290 meter and pay for the meter pit, but any digging required for the pit is on the property owner’s dime.
As part of a mine-pollution settlement involving groundwater, the city has about $1.6 million to install meters. That same settlement provided $20 million toward construction of the new Basin Creek water treatment plant.
Because final costs for the plant and other projects didn’t come in as high as expected, the county expects to steer another $1 million in the savings toward meters.
The combined $2.6 million wouldn’t cover the estimated $3.2 million total tab for converting everyone to meters, but it would pay for much of it, officials say.
Under flat rates, water usage isn’t measured so customers pay a flat monthly fee plus a sprinkling charge for six months of each year. But rates can be higher or lower depending on the number of faucets and outside hookups, among other things.
Under a two-year rate increase that went into effect in October, the average flat rate went from about $58 a month to $63.80 and will go to about $70 next October.
The average metered bill went from $40.34 to $44.41 in October and will increase to about $48 next October.