Describing wildly inaccurate water bills as DeKalb County’s “most critical crisis,” CEO Mike Thurmond on Thursday identified more than a dozen causes for the erratic charges and announced several short-term solutions.
Thurmond warned there are no easy answers to correct systematic billing problems. Over the years, billing errors have increased as the county government has implemented piecemeal solutions without a broader plan.
“There is no quick fix, turn on the lights and this is gone,” Thurmond said during a meeting with county commissioners. “This is a result of getting a problem that’s festering and not necessarily addressing it.”
He listed more than a dozen reasons for billing inaccuracies, including malfunctioning meters, incorrectly estimated bills, lack of training for workers and faulty meter installations.
Permanent corrections — replacing the county’s 190,000 water meters and upgrading a 15-year-old computer billing system — will take three or four years.
In the meantime, Thurmond said, residents can expect some relief.
Soon, residents will be able to seek an independent review of their bills and settle disputes. Water customers fighting the county will meet with an outside mediator, go through their charges and reach an agreement on what should be owed, he said.
In addition, he plans to hire more customer service representatives and field technicians, improve training and create safeguards to ensure water meters are installed correctly.
Some residents said they were disappointed Thurmond couldn’t provide more immediate fixes.
“There’s a lot left to be covered,” said Lisa Campbell Harper, a Druid Hills resident who received a $1,300 bill in September. “I want to remain hopeful, but there was no written commitment to improvements.”
Harper said she wanted Thurmond to report the number of people affected by water billing issues, as well as a metrics and timelines for them to be fixed.
“There were no solutions given beside the mediation,” said Ellen Buettner, a member of the Unbelievable DeKalb Water Bills group on Facebook.
The county government's knee-jerk reaction to the billing mess worsened the problem, Thurmond said.
The water billing department stopped mailing bills that were flagged by the county for potential inaccuracies. Those bills piled up, exceeding the government’s ability to process all of them. About 37,000 bills haven’t been sent since the county began withholding them last fall.
“That was a mistake to hold the bills,” Thurmond said. “We were rushing to get a solution and created another level of problems.”
Those bills are still being reviewed and corrected, he said. Bills for usage since Jan. 1 are being mailed.
One of the major reasons bills have increased has nothing to do with broken meters or inaccurate data.
DeKalb raised water and sewer rates each year from 2008 to 2014, resulting in a 212 percent increase, according to an analysis published by the county. A $74 bimonthly bill in 2007 now costs about $232.
Residents have every right to be frustrated with the county’s handling of water billing problems, which began decades ago but worsened over the last couple of years, Thurmond said.
“It won’t happen overnight. This is a journey, not an event,” Thurmond said. “We’re going to learn from our mistakes, and we’re going to use that knowledge to build a more effective system we can all be proud of.”
Mark Niesse covers voting rights and elections for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He also reports on the Georgia House of Representatives and government. He has been a reporter at the AJC since 2013 following a decade at The Associated Press in Atlanta, Honolulu and Montgomery, Ala.