The issue pits condo owners against single family homes, commercial against residential, big users against small, year 'round residents against snowbirds, and large consumers against those who do their best to economize.
The council heard from attorney Craig Woodward, president of Northmark Utilities, representing commercial and multi-family water consumers in the Old Marco area. The way his constituents' fees are calculated, causes them to significantly overpay.
"It's a major assumption, that 100 percent of the water used is being returned" through the sewer system, he said. "Historically, water usage numbers are always higher than sewer."
"The methodology used is the most factual, and rigorous," countered Councilman Bill Trotter. "Large commercial users get a break, the same as hotels. If we billed on actual flow, it would be much higher."
"We just heard comments from two individuals who are not experts," said Vice Chairman Joe Batte, asking for comment from the city's water and sewer rate consultant. That individual, Mike Burton of Burton & Associates, said calculating the rates is an inexact science.
"The numbers are not precise. The number of customers, and the actual sewer flow are known. Everything else is an assumption," he said.
Residents who leave during the summer months are putting nothing into the sewer system, yet continue to be charged under the current setup.
"Residents are being charged for 6,000 gallons of sewer, and putting none down," said citizen watchdog Amadeo Petricca. "On average, less than 4,000 gallons (of water consumption) are used in a single family house," and residents are charged for 6,000.
The city has attempted to deal with that through the use of "companion meters," but again, the system is not perfect. Houses built before 1995 do not have the required backflow check valve, and installing them is expensive.
"Do you remember how long a teenager stays in the shower?" Councilor Frank Recker asked, rhetorically. "We need to promote the use of companion meters."
Resident Bob Olson, saying he uses less than 3,000 gallons in his single family home, asked for consideration for those who make the effort to conserve. Hotels, he said, are getting a free ride, with each room using more water than the typical house, and the ancillary businesses of restaurants and spas not charged separately.
"I'm speaking for hundreds of folks, average people who don't understand why we don't all pay the same for a gallon of water. Why can't we keep this simple?"
"We're trying to get the large hotels to pay their fair share," said Magel.
Ben Farnsworth, president of the Villa de Marco condominium, and a client of Northmark Utilities, said they use a lot of water that does not get put into the sewer system.
"We powerwash about 20 docks, and pelicans, unfortunately, don't go away for the summer," he said. "Businesses are getting burdened because the Marriott uses an enormous amount of water."
Resident and utililites maven Ken Honecker and Trotter said that charging based on flow equivalent – actual usage – is more accurate than basing fees on meter size, which can lead to abuses and under-charging. Batte spoke up for rewarding those who conserve, but Burton said "your accounts are so widely dispersed" it would be difficult to accurately assess the correct charges for individual users.
Honecker made a pitch for council to use the "M1" system for determining rates, which he said is more scientific, but the council voted 4–3 to stick with the "M54" method already in place. Councilors Wayne Waldack, Jerry Gibson, Chuck Kiester and Recker voted in the majority, with Magel, Trotter and Batte dissenting.