Water billing problems persist for DeKalb residents

Jennifer Collins, Darren Davis and Sam Levy compare water bills. Collins and some of her neighbors in her new Dunwoody subdivision have received large water bills that they say don’t make sense. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Jennifer Collins, Darren Davis and Sam Levy compare water bills. Collins and some of her neighbors in her new Dunwoody subdivision have received large water bills that they say don’t make sense. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Government officials say they’re making progress, but solutions will take time

The water bill for Sam Levy’s Dunwoody home usually runs around $250 a month. But not on his last bill.

Though his family used more or less the same amount of water, he said, his bill jumped to a whopping $1,241.

It seems obvious to him that he was overcharged, and he expects the county fix it. At least six others in his neighborhood received bills that they, too, say are far out of line from what they normally pay.

It's a story repeated over and over in DeKalb County, where residents often complain about mystifying water and sewer charges, with one recent erroneous bill exceeding $19,000.

Despite a yearslong effort to address the problems, DeKalb still struggles with billing irregularities and faulty water meter readings. Government officials say they've made progress by improving customer service, but the permanent solution of installing more accurate smart meters countywide will take four more years.

“I’m freaking out about it, ” Levy said. “I don’t know why it’s this high. Something is wrong.”

A $1,500 water bill? DeKalb residents want answers

DeKalb Chief Operating Officer Zach Williams acknowledged that billing mistakes happen more than they should, but he said the county is steadily improving. The number of errors declined over the past three years, according to county figures.

The government is gradually replacing aging mechanical meters with computerized devices at 190,000 locations. Meanwhile, workers are trying to focus on increasing customer service. Average call wait times decreased from more than 13 minutes two years ago to about two minutes so far this year.

“When folks get this sticker shock, our first responsibility is to listen, then to understand, and then to try to get them to understand our perspective,” Williams said. “We will always be improving. We’re on a journey. It will take a few years to have all of the smart meters installed.”

Down the street from Levy, Jennifer Collins said she’s worried about a $737 bill she received after months of bills ranging from $85 to $292.

“It’s obviously a chronic problem,” Collins said. “It’s extremely frustrating. When the email comes with my bill amount, I’m scared to open it. Obviously, people are aware of it, but nothing is getting fixed.”

DeKalb officials reviewed several bills in that neighborhood and concluded they were accurate, said spokesman Burke Brennan. The bills were larger than usual because they covered more than one billing period after the county delayed mailing invoices to ensure they were accurate. The county is working with its bill printing vendor to clarify how charges are displayed.

It usually turns out that, when residents receive higher water bills, it’s because they’ve used more water, especially in the summer months when lawns and gardens need watering. Audits indicate that sharp increases are due to errors by the county about 13 percent of the time.

When the county is at fault, it’s usually because of problems with water meters, the workers who go out to read them or computer-generated billing inaccuracies. Mechanical meters become less accurate as they grow older, and the human element of inputting the information into the county’s computer can introduce mistakes.

All of those meters are being replaced by smart meters that will wirelessly transmit water consumption every hour, which should lead to more accurate bills and set off red flags when abnormally high water usage is detected. The water meter replacement program will cost about $30 million.

At the same time, the county is stepping up its effort to collect $71 million in delinquent bills.

Near Emory University, duplex owner Sandy Fiorenza said one of her units was billed $4,800 three weeks ago.

“We were quite floored,” she said. “The county has been absolutely no help whatsoever. They’re pretty much adamant that that amount of water came through our unit.”

One of the difficulties with water billing disputes is that if a meter reading is accurate, the government knows that much water flowed into a residence, Brennan said. But the county doesn’t know how the water was used, and it can’t provide satisfying answers to customers who swear they didn’t consume that much water.

The county last year hired 41 more customer service representatives to help handle disputes and other issues. And this year, it revamped its water bill format so that it provides more information, such as customers' historical water use.

“I’m confident, when we do get people who ask questions, that we’re able to explain why their bill is that way,” said Antrameka Knight, who oversees the county’s water and sewer billing. “That conversation used to be stilted between the customer and the residents, and I think that has significantly improved.”

Customer service representatives receive about 32,000 calls a month, and an increasing number of those calls are to make payments rather than to dispute their charges, she said.

Still, several residents complain that customer service representatives don’t always follow up on requests for more information.

As for the millions of dollars in unpaid water bills, DeKalb’s government is hiring a contractor to handle collections, Williams said. The county will continue to work with residents who dispute their bills and delay payment deadlines when appropriate. But those who refuse to settle up could have their water shut off.

Renters account for the largest portion of delinquent bills, at $31.8 million, followed by residential owners, apartment complexes, commercial properties and condos, according to a report provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open records request.

“Regardless of what anomalies in bills have happened in the past, we need to figure out how to ensure that we are collecting and that folks are not continue to amass outstanding debt,” Williams said. “No one believes that they should be getting water at no charge.”

And that $19,000 bill that a resident disputed this summer? It was caused by a computer glitch, and the county has corrected it.

Reasons for high water bills

  • Increased summer water consumption for irrigation or swimming pools
  • Mistakes when county employees manually read residential water meters
  • Estimated water bills when a water meter is obstructed by a car or other object
  • Back payments owed when customers get more accurate meters or the county stops estimating usage
  • Computer billing errors
  • Pipe leaks, toilet leaks and dripping faucets

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