Atlanta to pay $7.5 million in refunds to some water customers

Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management plans to refund a total of $7.5 million to 3,490 customers who used irrigation meters to limit their sewage bills but were still charged too much.

Watershed Management officials said the customers were hit with incorrect charges for more than two years, from July 1, 2008, to Sept. 30, 2010. If the City Council approves the legislation this month, the city could mail checks for full refunds, plus 7 percent interest, around Thanksgiving.

In the future, the Watershed Management Department — which serves more than 180,000 accounts in Atlanta and in neighboring jurisdictions such as Sandy Springs — will have stricter controls, Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina said.

Two senior Watershed Management staffers — currently Macrina and the deputy commissioner for finance administration — will have to approve any change in billing rates before they become active. They will receive weekly reports showing any changes in customers’ rates.

“We put additional checks and balances into it,” Macrina said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Residents and businesses typically install irrigation meters to protect themselves against being charged Atlanta’s sewer rates, which are about three times higher than the water portion of the bill.

But because of what city officials described as “human error,” the billing rate was misapplied. Most of the affected accounts are in north Atlanta, but some are scattered throughout the city. One plastics company is owed $250,000.

The affected customers represent about 2 percent of all city of Atlanta water and sewer accounts. Four out of five of the troubled accounts belong to residential customers; the rest are commercial customers.

During a severe drought in 2007, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered utilities in the Atlanta region to reduce water consumption by 10 percent.

Atlanta imposed a higher irrigation rate for outdoor watering to discourage heavy water usage, especially if it wasn’t necessary. The rate was supposed to be in effect Jan. 15 to June 30, 2008.

But the city only started charging the rate to city customers on July 1, 2008. Then some customers were hit with the higher rate for more than two years instead of the 5 1/2-month period originally intended.

The problem was only detected when a customer called to complain, and staffers looked through that account’s billing history. City officials say they then reviewed every irrigation account — about 11,000 of them — to spot irregularities.

Customers with questions about their irrigation meter account can call the dedicated customer service line at 404-546-7363. Customers can check whether they are eligible for refunds at www.atlantawatershed.org/irrigation.

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