As the end of DeKalb County’s long-standing ban on disconnecting water service for unpaid bills approaches, thousands of residents have signed up for installment plans or taken other measures to avoid losing access to the vital utility.
County officials expect — and hope — that that number will continue climbing before Wednesday’s deadline.
“The only thing you can’t do is nothing,” DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond said. “You’ve got to take an affirmative step.”
DeKalb’s water disconnection moratorium was put in place in 2016, amid growing outcry from residents getting outrageous, erroneous water bills. The idea was to prevent anyone from losing service while they disputed or otherwise tried to handle inaccurate bills — and while the county worked to resolve the internal issues driving the problem.
Things aren’t perfect, and probably never will be. But county officials say they’ve now largely accomplished their mission, replacing tens of thousands of water meters, installing electronic readers and steadily addressing other long-neglected infrastructure. Billing disputes have dropped dramatically from their peak.
Earlier this spring, Thurmond announced a controversial plan to end the moratorium in July. Under pressure from local advocates and national groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the National Consumer Law Center, he extended the deadline to Sept. 1.
Disconnections will not start immediately. Lifting the moratorium simply clears the way for the county to proceed as any other municipal utility would: folks carrying past due balances will have 30 days from their billing date to resolve things before being subject to losing service.
But county leaders are urging anyone and everyone with an outstanding balance to take action before things get to that point.
The county is offering general installment plans that can last 84 months with a minimum payment of $25, as well as another installment program geared toward people with COVID-19 related hardships. Residents can also initiate the formal dispute process.
If any of those options are requested, customers will not be subject to disconnection.
“There’s no need to stress out about this,” Josephine Handy-Sewell, a member of DeKalb’s water billing and customer service advisory board, said during a meeting last week. “You just have to raise your hand and ask the question.”
Thousands have already done just that.
As of Aug. 23, the county had received 6,792 requests for installment plans. Officials said 3,510 of those plans (or just under 52%) had already been processed and put in place.
Another 2,244 requests for COVID-19 hardship installment plans had been received. Just over 500 of those plans (about 24%) had been set up.
A total of 775 new billing disputes were filed in May, June and July, the first three months after Thurmond announced the disconnection moratorium would end.
At the time of Thurmond’s announcement, some 66,000 DeKalb water customers had past due bills of some variety. It was not immediately clear how many of those accounts had since been paid in full.
But DeKalb was setting up a second customer service call center this week in anticipation of a deluge of new requests to make payments or enter into other plans.
Jason Bailey is an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, one of the national organizations that in May sent a letter to DeKalb raising questions about the decision to lift the moratorium.
Bailey said representatives from his group, the National Consumer Law Center, and the DeKalb branch of the NAACP met with government leaders last week and came away “encouraged by the county’s overall commitment to making sure that people have options available to them if they’re unable to afford their total balance.”
Bailey said he’d still like to see more flexibility in the installment plans being offered, and expects to have further conversations about improving the county’s dispute process. He said more work needs to be done to make sure people are aware of their options.
But, Bailey said, county leaders “seem to definitely understand the fear in the community, and they seem to really be committed to working with folks.”
OPTIONS FOR ADDRESSING OUTSTANDING DEKALB WATER BILLS
- Residents who are able can pay their past due balance in full by Aug. 31. Officials said customers who choose this option can request a credit for up to one year of late fees by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Residents can request to enter an installment payment agreement by visiting www.dekalbcountyga.gov/installment, calling customer service at 404-378-4475 or returning the form that was previously mailed to customers.
- Residents can request a COVID-19 hardship installment plan if they’re unable to pay due to a pandemic-related issue. That application is available at www.dekalbcountyga.gov/hardship.
- Residents can also initiate a formal dispute, something the county encourages for anyone who has “unresolved water billing concerns.” A dispute can be initiate by calling 404-378-4475 or emailing email@example.com.