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Lodi landlords wrestle with water billing issues

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Lodi city staff suggested making property owners responsible for utility bills when a renter fails to pay as a way to reduce city write-offs, at a Lodi City Council early morning study session on Tuesday.

Public Works Director Wally Sandelin said the idea is in the beginning stages, and he will be discussing it with apartment, duplex and condo owners at future public meetings about the water meter program.

The issue is part of a broader question the Lodi City Council is wrestling with. The city is planning to install only one water meter on every property, regardless of whether there are multiple families living there. This includes large apartment complexes and mobile home parks.

Some landlords may opt to install submeters, so each tenant is paying for how much water they use. But in some cases, such as older properties or large complexes, that may not be possible.

The council is still considering how to deal with billing these properties, because it is impossible for the city to know how much water and wastewater each unit is using, City Manager Rad Bartlam said.

"How do we charge a tenant for what they have used, when all we know is how much the property has used?" he said. "We don't have a way of collecting that on a tenant-by-tenant basis."

One option is to charge the landlord for all of the renters' water and wastewater bills, and then let the landlord decide how to split the bill among their tenants.

Another option, which Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce brought up again at Tuesday's meeting, is having the city continue to charge each renter each month, and then having a true-up at the end of the year where the property owner either owes money or there is some type of credit.

"I want to continue billing the tenants, and at the end of the year we sent up a true-up bill, because I don't want property owners to be in the water and wastewater billing business," Mounce said.

City Attorney Steve Schwabauer said he suggested the idea to the state, but they are not in favor of it because it does not encourage landlords to install individual meters.

"If the landlord is stuck paying the bill, the landlord has incentive to put in individual meters," he said.

Lodi resident Nancy Watts said she appreciates the council considering the issues surrounding billing properties with multiple tenants. She was surprised the state would suggest landlords meter every unit.

"Some of these (regulations) and some of these proposals I think are a bit out of touch with reality," Watts said.

Sandelin said all of these issues will be discussed at future meetings with landlords.

The council also discussed lateral pipe maintenance at the meeting.

Currently, the city of Lodi maintains not only the water mains, but also the lateral pipes that run from the main in the street up to the house.

City staff suggested that qualified contractors could start installing new laterals at existing properties or for new developments, Sandelin said.

"In the past, when the water system has not been disinfected, there was a culture with our employees that no one could work on the city system except city crews. Our crews have done that work for many, many years," Sandelin said. "Now that the system is disinfected, the chancres of contamination is significantly less."

Councilman Larry Hansen questioned whether someone could intentionally contaminate the system if the city allows private landowners to hire contractors for this type of work.

Contractors would still have to get either a building or an encroachment permit, Sandelin said. When the lateral pipes connect to the main, a city inspector would be on hand to make sure everything is done properly, which would guard against any contamination.

Having contractors do this type of work could free up city crews for other projects, Sandelin said.

"It could help to reduce the workload on our current staff instead of having them do all the installations," Sandelin said.

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