Interim DeKalb County CEO Lee May announces that he’s not running for the CEO position in the November election during an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in his office on Feb. 5. KENT D. JOHNSON/ kdjohnson@ajc.com
Photo: Kent Johnson/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Kent Johnson/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

DeKalb won’t turn off water while residents fight high bills

Facing ongoing complaints from residents about incredibly high, erroneous water bills, Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May on Tuesday declared a moratorium on disconnections for non-payment.

The county government will allow water to keep flowing to residents who are disputing their bills, which will be reviewed by an independent third party, May said. The moratorium on water shut-offs will last until the end of the year.

Frustrated homeowners from across the county have said they’re being overcharged for water, with bills at times exceeding $1,000 or more.

“I have always said that one incorrect water bill is too many, and we have a number of issues that could factor into many errors on bills,” May said in a statement. “We must ensure that the process is accurate, and we have to err on the side of caution until we are confident that it is.”

Customers who believe their bills are inaccurate must contact the county’s customer service center to qualify for the moratorium. Then the county will investigate.

Residents with disputed balances will be required to pay what their water bill usually averages until their cases are resolved.

Increased water usage is the main reason that bills increase, according to county audits, but the county is at fault for sharp increases in water bills about 13 percent of the time. Inaccurate meter readings and computer-generated billing inaccuracies can explain some abnormal bills.

About 500 people have joined a Facebook group called Unbelievable DeKalb Water Bills to air their grievances, post their absurdly high bills and search for answers.

“People just feel hopeless and don’t feel like they’re being told the truth,” said Star McKenzie, a Decatur resident who started the Facebook group. “We know there are systemic issues going on. They need to start addressing how they’re going to get to the core of these problems.”

The county government’s customer service representatives need to do a better job of listening to residents’ concerns rather than assuming the bills are correct, said DeKalb Chief Operating Officer Zach Williams. An outside review of bills that are being contested will help remove that presumption by county workers, he said.

“I want us to look at every step in the process and validate that it’s accurate,” Williams told county commissioners during a meeting Tuesday. “We’re going to get it right. We recognize where there have been instances where we probably could have done better.”

Commissioner Larry Johnson said he hopes that during the water disconnection moratorium, the government will be able to eliminate many of the problems that result in mystifying bills.

“People should not feel uncertain about getting their water cut off. That’s their livelihood,” said Johnson, whose district covers southwest DeKalb. “Until we get a handle on why this is happening, we need this moratorium.”

Commissioner Nancy Jester said the moratorium will provide relief to residents who feared they’d lose water service while fighting with the county over their bills.

“I don’t think DeKalb County can in good conscience be turning off residential customers who are in the dispute process,” said Jester, whose district covers north DeKalb. “You have situations that are inexplicable and disturbing, and we’re not dealing with it properly. We’ve got to get to the root cause of these problems.”

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