National groups balk at DeKalb ending water disconnection moratorium

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Consumer Law Center raised the issue in a letter to DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond
DeKalb County residents will be updated on progress unraveling water billing problems at a meeting set for Sept. 25. CONTRIBUTED

DeKalb County residents will be updated on progress unraveling water billing problems at a meeting set for Sept. 25. CONTRIBUTED

Two national organizations are asking DeKalb County to reconsider lifting its years-long moratorium on water disconnections until “sufficient safeguards” are put in place to protect residents.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Consumer Law Center made their case in a letter sent Wednesday to DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond.

Thurmond announced last month his plans to end the moratorium — which was put in place to prevent residents from having their water service disconnected while they disputed unusually high bills. The moratorium has been in place since 2016 and would end July 1 under Thurmond’s plan. County officials say they’ve now largely resolved the issues that caused erroneous bills for thousands of households.

The advocacy organizations, though, believe more needs to be done.

Their letter urges DeKalb to keep the moratorium in place until the billing dispute process is made more transparent, and to consider creating a “water affordability program” that would tie water bills to a percentage of household income. It also suggests using federal COVID-19 relief funds to assist residents struggling to pay their bills.

The letter said that resuming water disconnections would “likely disproportionately harm Black people and other communities of color.”

“The county claims to have resolved the enormous backlog of billing disputes, but we have heard from a significant number of residents that their dispute was closed without ever being resolved,” Sarah Mancini, an Atlanta-based staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, said in a news release. “Now residents are being threatened with a shut off if they don’t pay the bill that they still believe to be inaccurate.”

A spokesman for DeKalb said late Wednesday that the county had “received but not reviewed” the organizations’ letter and “looks forward to meeting with their representatives in the near future.“

When he announced in April the county’s plans to end the moratorium, CEO Thurmond said water billing disputes had dropped to less than 200 per month, a far cry from the more than 4,000 per month that were reported at the peak of the crisis.

More than 82,000 water meters have been replaced in recent years, including all of the meters that were previously installed with a defect that caused them to malfunction when they came into contact with moisture. About 70% of all water customers now have meters that transmit consumption data electronically, which officials believe produces more accurate readings.

In letters being distributed to DeKalb residents this month, county utility officials said that “additional staff have been hired and customized training programs have been implemented throughout customer service and field services.”

The letters include links to apply for installment plans and for considerations related to COVID-19 hardships.

Those with questions can also call 404-378-4475 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.