The city of Atlanta wants to write off more than $9 million in unpaid water and sewer bills that city officials say are uncollectible.
The bills, all of which the city said have been delinquent for more than a year, come from some 284 customers stretching from Buckhead to Lakewood. Each owe at least $10,000, and one condo association for a long-vacant community owes more than $1 million, city records show.
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The properties include defunct businesses, single-family homes, boarded up and vacant apartments.
Mohamed Balla, Department of Watershed Management deputy commissioner over finance, said his department has tried to track down the delinquent customers and force them to pay up, but efforts so far have proved unsuccessful.
“We are and will pursue all remedies to try to collect these funds for the city,” Balla told Channel 2 Action News. In some cases, the city has placed liens on the properties to ensure the city can collect if they are ever sold.
The city, he said, is also working with collections agencies.
“I want people to understand this administration and the Department of Watershed is very prudent and making sure that ratepayer funds are well-respected,” he said. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure we are collecting on water bills.”
Last month, proposed legislation was introduced to write-off the unpaid bills, which will require City Council approval.
District 7 Councilman Howard Shook, who represents Buckhead and chairs the finance committee, said the city auditor several years ago recommended more frequent write-offs of delinquent bills, as opposed to past practices that let the unpaid balances balloon.
“This is the unhappy part of being a utility, public or private, and the recommendation was clear to write it off,” Shook said. “It’s good business practice, provided there’s some sense of credibility around the claim that we’ve tried and tried and tried and tried and this money is uncollectable.”
For now, although Watershed will continue to seek repayment, the written-off bills mean paying customers and taxpayers are left holding the bag.
Shook said taxpayers often question how such large balances can be accrued in the first place. Water theft is one culprit.
“The list always raises questions about how some people got away with it,” Shook said, adding that for the City Council, “every time these things come through we grit our teeth and go over it again.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution attempted to contact many delinquent customers with little success.
The largest delinquent customer of the group, according to city records, is a condo association connected to long-abandoned apartments on Chappell Road west of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The organization owes more than $1.2 million in back water/sewer bills, city records show.
The owner of an abandoned apartment community on Anderson Avenue about a mile west of the Chappell Road community, meanwhile, owes some $871,000, according to Watershed records.
A woman who identified herself as the mother of the Anderson Avenue property owner said the company isn’t behind on its bills. She said the family requested service to be shut off when the property became vacant in 2010, and the city failed to act for nearly eight years.
Watershed spokeswoman Rukiya Campbell said in an email the Anderson Avenue property’s account was closed in June 2016 “and marked inactive.” The large overdue bill, she said, related to property falling into disrepair, resulting in unaddressed leaks.
“The balance is being written off as uncollectable, however, the debt has not been forgiven,” she said.