Anxious DeKalb residents seek relief from extreme water bills

A crowd of DeKalb County residents who say they're being ripped off for water service packed a town hall meeting Thursday, demanding explanations for bills reaching into the thousands of dollars.

They made sure county government officials heard their frustration, shouting out amounts of their bills: $600, $1,000, $1,800 and more. The standing-room-only crowd exceeded 200 people who filled DeKalb’s government auditorium.

They confronted government officials to try to get the bottom of the problem — and to try to avoid having to pay bills they believe are ridiculous.

“My bill is crazy,” said Clare Williams, who lives in Brookhaven and has been charged as much as $1,400 for water and sewer service. “I have no idea why this is happening. It’s either corruption, stupidity, incompetence or broken meters.”

Residents frequently complained that customer service representatives blame them for using too much water instead of considering that their bills may be inaccurate.

“For years, representatives have given us every excuse for why it’s our fault that water bills are so high,” said Star McKenzie, who started a Facebook group called Unbelievable DeKalb Water Bills. “No other company could stay in business with this ‘customer is always wrong’ attitude. Unfortunately for residents, you’re selling something that we can’t live without.”

Government officials opened the meeting with an apology and promised to change how the county handles water billing problems.

The county hasn’t previously ensured that residents are treated fairly, said DeKalb Chief Operating Officer Zach Williams.

“We had systems in place that for a number of years that said, ‘We’re right, and you need to prove we’re wrong.’” Williams told the crowd. “I apologize for that.”

Bills can drastically increase for many reasons: malfunctioning water meters, meter reading mistakes, billing errors, increased water consumption and more.

It’s unclear how many people have recently seen sharp increases in their bills. In 2014, the county identified 5,640 residents who had experienced bills that were more than double their normal amounts.

Recognizing the problem, Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May recently declared a moratorium on water disconnections for nonpayment while residents are disputing their bills.

May also created a team this week dedicated to helping residents work through billing disputes, and a third party will review billing issues when customers aren’t satisfied with the county’s response.

Customers can dispute their bills by contacting the customer service center, and their calls will be transferred to the new Customer Assurance Team. Residents who object to their bills will receive an email and a letter confirming that their bill is in dispute, and they will only have to pay their average bill amounts.

Then a field technician will be dispatched to investigate. They’ll check meters, connections, service line leaks at no charge, and they’ll be available to meet with homeowners to discuss possible issues.

Residents said changes should have been made a long time ago.

“The burden of proof is always on us,” said Darijo Babic, who lives in Tucker and saw his bill jump from about $43 to $458. “They say you’re guilty until proven innocent. Felons have more rights than the citizens of DeKalb County.”