Atlanta audit: 10,000 water meters faulty

Thousands of city of Atlanta water customers had defective meters that could have caused them to pay too much or too little for several years, according to an audit commissioned by the city after citizen complaints.

Preliminary results obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed that about 10,000, or 6 percent, of 158,000 residential meters inspected had defects that could affect bills. But city officials said fewer than half of those customers had been overcharged.

City staffers must still calculate the amounts of discrepancies and determine refunds or credits. The city does not plan to demand back payment from people who were under-billed.

The year-long audit does not foreshadow much relief for ratepayers who are charged some of the highest water and wastewater rates in the country. Atlanta’s combined monthly bills average more than $150 for a typical ratepayer — almost double Gwinnett’s and more than twice as high as in DeKalb, Clayton, Cobb and Fulton counties.

Atlanta’s high rates help pay for $2 billion in sewer upgrades required by federal regulators.

The audit - and the resulting repairs to defective meters - will make water-use records and billing more reliable, the city’s top managers said.

“We want to give our customers confidence in their meter, that it does read accurately,” said Jo Ann Macrina, commissioner of the city’s Department of Watershed Management.

The audit came five years after the start of a $35 million project to install automated meter reading throughout Atlanta’s water system. That project was supposed to improve billing accuracy, identify potential leaks and cut the time it takes to read meters.

The data is typically transmitted to the billing system through handheld devices carried by technicians who drive around to pick up the signals. DeKalb County uses a similar system, but many of Atlanta’s neighbors — including Cobb, Cherokee and Gwinnett counties — do not.

Complaints about unpredictable or inflated bills intensified soon after the expensive changeover, even generating coverage on CNN and other major media outlets.

Bill Lucas, a businessman who became a self-styled citizens’ advocate on water issues while living in Buckhead, said the meter audit focused on the wrong thing. The root problem is in the hand-off of data between the meter, the wireless detection devices and the city’s billing software, he said.

“I’ve maintained the position all along that the meters themselves were always somewhat an excuse,” said Lucas, who now lives in Vinings. “The meters weren’t the issue. The issue came with the collection of the information, the transmission of the data and the submission into the software, because it changed hands so many times.”

“I’m quite sure some meters were faulty,” he said. “But I think what they’re trying to do is put some closure on the issue. The public needs to understand the meters are not the problem.”

The city provides drinking water or sewage treatment to cities as small as Fairburn and as large as Sandy Springs and it also serves parts of Coweta, DeKalb, Fayette and Fulton counties.

Holly Jones of Sandy Springs said she has been contesting her water bills from Atlanta since March, three months after a new meter was installed. Her bill was about $18 every month from May 2010 through February of this year, with the exception of two months. But her recent bills have shown four to nine times her normal water usage.

“I’ve not changed my lifestyle water-wise since last March when all this began,” said Jones, who has an appeals hearing scheduled for early October. She worries that any underlying issues with her meter won’t be resolved even if she gets some of her money back.

“So they waive my excessive bills — then what?” she said. “I can’t go on like this forever.”

Most metro Atlanta jurisdictions generally inspect a portion of their meters on a rolling basis, rather than with a mass audit.

The audit by outside contractors Arcadis/BPA and JP2 cost Atlanta $2.4 million, not including the cost to repair or replace meters, lids or other components.

“When we had so many ratepayers complaining about their bills, obviously we had to find out the origin of it,” said Natalyn Archibong, chair of the City Council’s utilities committee. “There was a point in time when every council member was dealing with complaints.”

One-third of the meters were problem-free and met all standards on the first go-around. The remaining two-thirds, or about 106,000 residential water meters, needed repairs or follow-up, although most problems were not related to billing.

Some defects, such as cracked lids, would probably not change bills. Likewise, missing antennae could make it more difficult for technicians to get a reading with a handheld meter reader, but would not necessarily change the amount of water usage recorded.

The number of problematic meters could rise as inspectors try to reach meters blocked by landscaping, concrete or other obstacles.

The city plans to begin contacting ratepayers whose bills may have been incorrect within a month, and it hopes to reconcile all accounts within six months. That process could be slowed somewhat by ownership transfers and difficulty in tracking down owners, Macrina said.

The audit provided “careful and meticulous documentation,” said Duriya Farooqui, the city’s chief operating officer. “If one customer has been upset or frustrated over the course of several months, we take that very seriously. You are going to be able to have a fact-based conversation.”

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