Fear, frustration as DeKalb moves to end water disconnection ban

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CEO says money needed to prevent a ‘major crisis’ in water distribution system

In 2014, Ashlee Neese’s mother received a water bill from DeKalb County for about $3,000.

She disputed it and the county replaced her meter. Then, Neese says, her mom stopped getting bills altogether. She called regularly for months and months, but nothing was rectified.

So she gave up.

Last month, Neese’s mother — now 65 with health issues and a fixed income — got a letter from the county saying she owed $6,409.93 in past due water bills. And if she didn’t pay up or create an installment plan, she and her Doraville home of three decades could be left without the vital utility.

“It’s wrong on so many levels,” Ashlee Neese said. “Especially in the pandemic.”

In 2016, amid growing furor over outrageous and erroneous bills delivered to residents throughout the county, DeKalb officials put in place a moratorium on disconnections. Water service would not be cut off for anyone, whether they paid their bill or not, and the county would work to address the underlying issues.

Five years later, that moratorium is coming to an end — and bills are coming due.

DeKalb County resident Arelia Wimby was on hand with dozens of other area residents to demand answers about excessively high water bills during a town hall meeting at the Maloof Auditorium in Decatur on Nov. 10, 2016. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Caption
DeKalb County resident Arelia Wimby was on hand with dozens of other area residents to demand answers about excessively high water bills during a town hall meeting at the Maloof Auditorium in Decatur on Nov. 10, 2016. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond made the decision earlier this spring, saying that tens of thousands of meters had been replaced, others had electronic readers installed, and disputed bills had dropped from 4,000 a month to less than 200.

The moratorium’s end was originally scheduled for July 1. Under pressure from local advocates and national organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Thurmond later extended the moratorium until Sept. 1.

Some 60,000 DeKalb residents have an overdue bill of one variety or another. The CEO said the two extra months will give them more time to get their issues addressed without having their service disconnected, whether that means paying all at once, applying for an installment plan of up to seven years, or filing a formal dispute.

But for the Neeses and thousands of other DeKalb water customers, recent weeks have been filled with confusion, anxiety and frustration.

“People are terrified,” Neese said.

Many feel like they’re in a tight spot through no fault of their own. And posts about waiting on the phone with customer service for two or three or four hours — and reaching nobody — have flooded the “Unbelievable DeKalb Water Bills” Facebook page that advocate Star McKenzie set up years ago.

“I really think the county kind of set themselves for failure by trying to rush this,” said McKenzie, a former member of the DeKalb Watershed Customer Service and Billing Advisory Board. “Get this tightened up before you expect people to pay on back-bills that they don’t even understand.”

Why now?

Thurmond says he understands the concerns, and knows that residents aren’t exactly “joyful” about the situation. But he said ending the moratorium is about everyone paying their fair share — a vital step for the future of the county.

“We are facing a major crisis and the potential of a catastrophic collapse of the water distribution system within the next five years, unless immediate, concerted efforts are taken to repair and replace this aging system,” Thurmond said.

In DeKalb, the spill-prone sewer system gets most of the infrastructure-related attention. But much of the water distribution system is just as old, if not older, and equally in need of repair.

According to the county’s data, DeKalb has recently seen around 900 water main breaks per year. About 200 miles of water pipe was installed before 1950. Another 600 miles or so — a full one-fifth of the water system — will exceed its service life by 2030.

About 29% of the water released from the county’s lone treatment plant never makes it to consumers, seeping out through cracks and breaks and clogs. The industry standard for such losses is 10%.

Fixing all of that, of course, takes money. Lots of it.

Last fall, DeKalb received a $265 million loan from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Most of those funds are earmarked for improvements to the sewer system, but a portion helped replace decrepit water pipes along Briarcliff Road.

A lawsuit filed by a former DeKalb County procurement officer is another mark against its beleagured water and sewer operations. On March 7, 2018, a water main break along Buford Highway crippled the county’s water supply. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
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A lawsuit filed by a former DeKalb County procurement officer is another mark against its beleagured water and sewer operations. On March 7, 2018, a water main break along Buford Highway crippled the county’s water supply. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

DeKalb is now awaiting word on another, $253 million loan it’s seeking from the EPA’s Water and Infrastructure and Finance Innovation Act (or WIFIA). Those funds would be used to correct “resiliency issues” at the Scott Candler Water Treatment Plant, increase the system’s capacity and replace aging pipes, among other things.

County officials have estimated that lifting the disconnection moratorium — and having more people pay their appropriate share — could increase annual revenue by about $12 million. The money could be used to cover debt service on the loans and other improvements.

Thurmond said he’s trying to avoid situations like what happened in Jackson, Mississippi, earlier this year, when icy weather and neglected infrastructure combined to leave residents without clean water for nearly a month.

“We’re in a race against time,” Thurmond said. “The money that’s being collected, I’m not putting it in the fund balance. We’re investing it into maintaining this system that’s been sorely neglected for decades.”

‘A more flexible approach’

Jason Bailey is the special economic justice counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national civil rights organization. He called the two-month extension of the moratorium “a very positive development,” but said he still has plenty of concerns.

Given DeKalb’s sizable Black, Latinx and Asian populations, widespread cutoffs would likely have a disproportionate impact on people of color. Bailey said that, among other things, he’d like to see the county offer more transparency about its processes.

He also took issue with the requirement that customers make a 10% down payment before entering into an installment plan.

“We think that a more flexible approach is needed by allowing folks to pay what they can,” Bailey said.

Said McKenzie, the local advocate: “This can snowball very quickly for people who are financially unstable. It could be a lot worse than just having their water cut off.”

For his part, Thurmond said he is encouraged by how things are progressing. By Wednesday morning, the county had already had about 7,000 people request installment plans. About 1,300 of those had been put in place.

The CEO said patience is key.

“We sent letters to 20,000 people,” he said. “Literally, you have upwards of 20,000 people trying to call into a call center. So you’re going to have some delays.”

BILLING DISPUTES

At the height of DeKalb’s water billing saga, around 4,000 residents per month were disputing their bills. Officials say a dramatic drop in that number and fixes to the system mean the county is ready to end its moratorium on water disconnections for unpaid bills.

Number of disputes received:

May 2020: 152

June: 293

July: 125

Aug.: 350

Sept.: 311

Oct.: 234

Nov.: 271

Dec.: 242

Jan. 2021: 184

Feb.: 206

March: 194

April: 168

May: 167

OPTIONS FOR CUSTOMERS WITH UNPAID BILLS

Residents with questions about past due amounts can call 404-378-4475 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. More information is also available at https://www.dekalbcountyga.gov/watershed-management/water-disconnection-moratorium.

Applications for installment plans can be found at https://www.dekalbcountyga.gov/form/application-for-installment-agre. Residents can also apply for COVID-19 related hardship plans at https://www.dekalbcountyga.gov/form/covid-19-disconnection-moratoriu.