Northport residents and business owners who want to appeal their annual sewer bill next year will need to install special meters that track how much water does not flow back into the sewage treatment system.
Trustees voted unanimously last week to approve the change to village code, which they said will make appeal outcomes more fair and precise. Village officials started looking for a new way to calculate appeals earlier this year after many people complained the former method was arbitrary.
"If you have a $1,000 bill for your sewer rent and you're claiming that half of that goes into your irrigation, this is a cheap and easy way to verify that," Mayor George Doll said.
Officials acknowledged the code will require an upfront investment for residents who want to make sure they are not overcharged. Officials had two meters as examples for residents at the meeting. They cost about $80 and $140; and Doll said plumbers have given him rough estimates of $150 to install the devices.
Annual sewer rents are calculated based on a property's water use at a rate of $4.07 per 1,000 gallons, and all residential users are automatically given a 10 percent discount.
But the village does not have an algorithm for calculating a reduction when someone appeals their bill -- usually for having a swimming pool, lawn watering, or other uses that do not feed water back into the sewage treatment plant.
Appeals have been handled almost as negotiations: Residents make their case to village officials, who then determine some reduction in the rent. That system will continue until next year, so residents have time to purchase and install the meters.
Northport resident Ralph Mormile told Newsday in January that his 2014 bill was $1,021.99, even though he and his wife spend six months a year in Florida. He appealed and received a nearly $300 discount. He is still dissatisfied.
"We cannot flush the toilet this much," Mormile said at the time.
In addition, extensive upgrades to the Northport wastewater treatment plant in recent years have caused sewer rents to rise.
"Unfortunately they will continue to do so," Trustee Henry Tobin said, noting that not all of the associated costs have come due. While about 75 percent of the plant upgrades are covered by grants, the village's cost is still significant, he said.
Officials said people with high sewer rents will likely see a return on the investment in a short time.
"This is the only way we can fairly divide it up," trustee Ian Milligan said. "What we're trying to determine is what goes down the drain."
Effie Huber, 66, of Northport said when the village switched to the sewer rent system in 2011, her first bill was $600. She installed one of the water meters in her home, and it has cut her bill to about $75 each year since.
"It's well worth the investment," Huber said.
Residents must notify the village when they install the meters.
Frank Cavagnaro, who owns many apartment and business rentals in Northport, objected to the new code, arguing it would be an unfair expense to install meters at all of his properties.
"It's going to cost me about $100,000," he said at the meeting.
Milligan disagreed, saying Cavagnaro would not need to install the meter at each individual apartment, but just in a few places where water feeds outside of each building.
Before the rent system, Northport charged everyone for the sewer based on property value. Village officials switched to a dual billing method after deciding that was unfair to people with septic systems.
Those on the sewer system cover 25 percent of its cost through sewer rents, and all residents and businesses still pay a portion through property taxes -- on the premise that everyone benefits from a clean harbor. Suffolk County and Huntington also pay into the system.Northport's sewer bills went out Oct. 1, based on water consumption from July 2014 through June.