DeKalb ignores key recommendation for fixing water billing problem

DeKalb CEO Mike Thurmond said on Friday that, for now, he plans to disregard an audit's recommendation that the county consolidate departments to help fix the ongoing problem with water overbilling.

Thurmond disagreed with the $275,000 audit's finding that the county needs to put a manager in charge of the issue and combine separate water billing and watershed departments. He said he'll be the person responsible for correcting extreme and inaccurate water bills.

“The root cause has little or nothing to do with the organizational structure,” Thurmond said. “I’m the project manager. I’ve personally led the effort to address the issues outlined in the audit as well as the result of our own review and investigation.”

The outside audit, conducted by financial services firm KPMG, included 22 recommendations to improve the county government's management, upgrade its technology and become more accountable. The Thurmond administration was required by state law to respond to the audit by Friday, 60 days after it was formally delivered to his office.

Thousands of residents have complained of inflated water bills in recent years, often caused by water meter malfunctions, computer errors, customer service mistakes or poorly trained employees.

Thurmond’s eight-page response to the 127-page audit never mentions the recommendation that departments be combined, but it does say the county is reducing “silos” between departments by improving communications. He said he’ll make a decision about merging departments in a couple of years after replacing the county’s water meters and installing new water billing software.

DeKalb Commissioner Nancy Jester said it’s “delusional” to believe the water billing problem will be fixed without realigning its broken bureaucracy.

“Everybody we’ve ever talked to ever comes to the same conclusion: You really need to integrate these two departments,” Jester said. “You can’t have a billing and customer service unit outside the core service. Until we consolidate these things, it’s going to be messed up.”

The county separated its water billing and customer service division from water meter services in 2015, according to the audit. Water meter reading and installation was moved from the DeKalb Finance Department to the DeKalb Watershed Department, but the county never competed the reorganization by also moving water billing functions.

“Lack of communication and resistance to collaboration can lead to service delivery inefficiencies in both organizations,” the audit said.

Decatur homeowner Ellen Buettner, who was overbilled for several months before resolving the issue, said residents often feel that county officials offer little more than lip service.

“I just don’t feel like the people in charge of billing and watershed are going to adequately address this problem anytime in the near future,” she said. “I would love for it to be otherwise, but I just don’t see it.”

The Thurmond administration’s response to the audit cited many steps the county has taken since the CEO took office Jan. 1.

The county has hired 27 field services employees, invested in a $5 million water billing software upgrade, reduced call hold times, cleared most of a backlog of 37,000 bills withheld for verification of their accuracy and begun planning to replace 102,000 aging and defective meters.

DeKalb Chief Audit Executive John Greene, who ordered the audit, can't force Thurmond to implement the audit's recommendations. But he said he'll follow up on the audit's recommendations in six months and monitor the county's progress in implementing corrections.