Catherine Brown lives in a Lodi apartment, and is dedicated to water conservation.
In recent years, she has purchased a low-flow toilet and a front-loading washing machine to reduce her water use. She keeps an eye out for neighboring properties who run too much water, or have leaky sprinkler heads.
But living in an apartment means sharing a water main with dozens of neighbors. The requirement to install water meters means sharing costs with those same neighbors.
"I don't think it's right that I should pay for someone else to flush a high-flow toilet. I don't think it's right that I should be asked to conserve when the neighbor next to me is blowing water out the kazoo. It's not fair; it's not equitable," she said heatedly. "You can't lump us all. We don't all use the same amount of water."
Brown's concerns reflect a larger issue facing the Lodi City Council. When a dozen homes get their water from the same pipe, watched by the same meter, who gets the short stick to sort out the complex billing process?
A Tuesday morning study session covered a variety of issues, including the longevity of a water meter and how to deal with vacant apartments or mobile home lots.
Most homes in Lodi work with a three-quarter inch water main. The cost of the installation varies, even though every homeowner was only charged $300. About 20 properties have larger pipes, including two mobile home parks with their own fire hydrants. The larger pipe is required by state law so enough water can flow for fire suppression.
One meter will work for 15 to 20 years before it starts to give bad readings. In vacant units, there will be no cost for water usage, but the base monthly charge will still apply. This goes for residential homes and apartments.
One billing issue raised contention among council members. Apartments complexes with swimming pools, common lawn areas or washing machines often have a separate water main for those uses that doesn't serve any tenants directly. But it would need to be metered.
Councilmember JoAnne Mounce said she could not understand the idea of not adding those water charges to tenants' bills.
"It's for the benefit of the tenant. They're enjoying the pool, they're enjoying the green grass. They're washing their clothes," she said.
Public Works Director Wally Sandelin gave his perspective on what may be a logical solution.
"My gut feeling is that we are going to have master meters. It will not be possible for us to install individual meters for each unit," he said.
In that case, the bill would go to the apartment owner or the homeowner's association to divvy up for payment.
Mounce wasn't content with that solution. The crux of California's water meter law is to create a monetary incentive for residents to use less water, she said. Adding a water meter that charges for every gallon encourages homeowners to also install low-flow showerheads, toilets and appliances.
"Where is the conservation incentive for an individual tenant when the homeowners association is paying the bill? I'm trying to wrap my head around the nonsense that is billing the property owners for this," she said.
In very few cases, Sandelin said, submeters could be installed by the apartment owner or mobile home park owner. For example, Sand Creek Apartments on South Mills Avenue paid to install 21 meters for 230 units last year. But they haven't yet decided how to bill each customer, since one meter covers several homes.
Sandelin recommended adding a water charge into the rent and charging by the unit. Another option is to charge a flat rate, then account for the difference in usage at the end of each year. But tenants come and go, and it might be impossible to find someone six months after moving out.
Several apartment dwellers and mobile home owners made their concerns known.
Dustin Totten, who owns several housing complexes in the area, requested that the city does not pass billing onto property owners.
"We're in the housing business. To put us in the water and waste business is going to raise costs. Keep billing in the city. Not to be rude, but that's kind of what us taxpayers pay you for. You're the water and waste merchants, and we're the consumers. I'm just hoping we can keep it that way," he said.
Ray Lunning, who has spent seven years in the Casa De Lodi mobile home park, suggested charging residents based on the number of people living in a home, not on the number of bedrooms.
"I want a real system that doesn't disproportionately charge senior citizens. Charge us a flat rate. We all know we use less water because we're naturally conservative," he said.
Nancy Watt of Ticknor Court encouraged the council to take their time with the decision, and to consider rebates for low-flow fixtures.
"I urge you to look at alternatives. Let's not rush into this. Let's get it right. Let Lodi be the star on the map that actually did it properly," she said.
Members of the council were divided on potential solutions.
Mounce suggested billing water charges quarterly so that even short-term tenants can be billed properly.
"I think it's obscene to say, 'Bill the property owner and they'll receive credit for the conservation tenants are doing,'" she said. "There are so many other ways to do it. We just can't get off the fact that this is the way the other cities do it. (Residents) should be reaping the benefit," she said.
But Councilman Bob Johnson said he doesn't want to linger over the decision.
"This choice could and should be made sooner rather than later. Pushing the problem on out while we do research isn't going to solve anything," he said.
Others insisted there was no other option.
"There's no way of providing incentive to apartment complexes to conserve water because they're on a mass meter. It comes down to the issue of, should the property owner be doing that or should the city do that?" said Councilman Larry Hansen.
The meeting was informational only. The council has not yet made a final decision on how to bill multiple home properties.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.