DeKalb homeowners seek answers for giant water bills

Perri Higbie shows a $795,458 water bill that her Brookhaven homeowners' association received from DeKalb County in August. Higbie and about 100 residents attended a water billing community meeting on Nov. 2, 2015. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

Credit: Mark Niesse

Credit: Mark Niesse

Perri Higbie shows a $795,458 water bill that her Brookhaven homeowners' association received from DeKalb County in August. Higbie and about 100 residents attended a water billing community meeting on Nov. 2, 2015. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

Where the money goes

DeKalb County bills its 180,000 residential water and sewer customers bimonthly. Those fees fund the DeKalb Department of Watershed Management’s $301 million budget.

The county raised billing rates by 16 percent in 2008 and by 11 percent each year from 2012 to 2014 to help pay for an ongoing $1.35 billion overhaul of the aging water and sewer system.

Overbilling audit

DeKalb found 5,750 customers whose bills rose by more than 200 percent, according to a September 2014 audit conducted by the county.

Customer water usage explained the increase 71 percent of the time. Water leaks and irrigation systems accounted for another 16 percent.

The county was responsible for water billing hikes the remaining 13 percent of the time for various reasons:

  • Meter reading error
  • Meter malfunction
  • Billing error
  • Catch-up (previous underbilling)
  • Stopped meter
  • Meter leak
  • Vacant property
  • Crossed meter

Source: DeKalb County

Among the numerous complaints about skyrocketing water bills in DeKalb, nothing tops the case of the $795,000 invoice.

The county sent the enormous bill in September to a Brookhaven homeowners’ association whose only water expense was for two sprinklers on a small path of grass.

DeKalb later adjusted the bill to its correct amount: $9.

“Something is very, very wrong,” said Perri Higbie, who lives in the neighborhood. “It’s inexplicable.”

Higbie never heard a reason for the outlandish bill.

Her story is an extreme example, but many residents say over-billing is routine. Some have complained about bills that are 10 times the normal amount. And they’re baffled as to why the abrupt spikes in water charges occur.

DeKalb Chief Operating Officer Zach Williams acknowledged the billing mistakes and said the county has "a long way to go" to get to the bottom the problem.

The county has more than doubled its number of customer service representatives, but billing accuracy remains an issue. Customer hold times have declined to an average of about a minute compared to 17 minutes in October of last year.

“We’re becoming more effective at responding to their calls, but our job really is to make it so that they don’t have to call,” Williams said. “I’d like to apologize to those who feel that our staff and our system isn’t treating them appropriately. I will certainly instruct folks that is not acceptable.”

It’s unclear how widespread the water billing issues are. DeKalb receives about 500 calls for bill explanations and 225 calls for bill disputes per week from its 180,000 customers.

Residents are responsible for bills that rise because of leaks or increased water consumption. But some believe the county is dodging culpability for broken water meters, incorrect meter readings, computer errors and general incompetence.

An audit last year identified 3 percent of the county’s water customers whose bills increased by more than 200 percent in a single billing cycle. About 87 percent of the increases were caused by customers through increased water usage, leaks or irrigation, according to the audit. The rest of the time, the county was responsible.

Bob Maxfield, who lives south of Stone Mountain, said the county gave him the runaround when he called about his bill jumping from $20 in July to $868 in September.

“You would’ve had to put a dam up on this street to keep my home from being flooded if I really used that much water,” Maxfield said. “I was told I have a choice: Pay the bill or we’ll cut your water off.”

In a county stained by corruption allegations, Maxfield doesn't trust DeKalb to fix the water billing issues. He paid the bill under protest and wrote a letter, but he hasn't received a response.

Over-billing complaints come from across the county, but solutions have been lacking, said Commissioner Nancy Jester. About 100 residents attended a water billing community meeting hosted by Jester in Brookhaven earlier this month. Some said they’ve taken pictures of their water meters to prove their usage, and still had couldn’t resolve their problems.

“They told me I went to somebody else’s meter and took pictures,” Gary Rubadou said after the meeting. “They even suggested someone was stealing my water. I’ve never seen something so bizarre in my life.”

DeKalb this summer launched an automatic internal review of bills that more than quadruple in a billing cycle. Misread water meters are the most frequent billing issue attributed to the county, according to last year’s audit.

“I don’t have a sense that we are holistically or systematically addressing the root causes that are creating these problems,” Jester said. “I hope I’m wrong, but it’s not fixed yet, and I don’t know how far down the road we are.”

County leaders also are considering whether to put water billing under the same management as water service. Currently, water billing is handled by the county’s Finance Department, while water and sewer infrastructure is under the Watershed Department.

Nancy Aroneck, a Brookhaven real estate agent whose bill rose from $98 in June to $839 in September, said customer service representatives repeatedly fail to return her calls, then blamed her for excessive water use. Now she’s facing the possibility that the county could turn off her water.

“What a mess,” she said. “They come up with these excuses that make absolutely no sense.”

The county instructs residents who have seen severe hikes to try to isolate the problem. They turn off their water and then check to see whether their water meters moved, which could indicate whether they have a leak. They’re also told to hire plumbers to verify they don’t have a leak.

In some cases, residents may see disproportionate bills when the county replaces an old water meter that had been underestimating their water usage. Other times, county employees have read meters incorrectly or estimated usage.

The county is installing about 30,000 new meters per year that more accurately record water usage and wirelessly transmit information, eliminating the need for county employees to physically check meters.

In the meantime, complaints about water bills will be dealt with one case at a time.

“Every single time, the answer is, we’ll send someone out or get someone to call you back, but no one ever calls back,” said Dana Peterson, who rents a house with two roommates and received a $1,145 bill in July. “We’ve been given no explanation about why. It’s very frustrating.”