Atlanta to spend $2.5 million to inspect water meters

The city of Atlanta is poised to spend $2.5 million over the next four months to inspect every residential water meter in the city.

If approved by the full council next week, the department of Watershed Management will hire two independent contractors to check each of the 162,000 meters to make sure they are the correct size, turned on or off, have a working antenna, are properly positioned and can be read by GPS systems.

The move comes on the heels of a steady stream of complaints about inconsistent billing. Earlier this year, the city sampled 9,000 meters as part of a 71-page internal audit and determined that 96 percent of them were accurate.

“We want to make sure the system is correct and accurate and that any field issues are identified and corrected,” said Deputy Commissioner and CFO Jim Beard. “We are on the side of caution and getting this corrected and move forward.”

But Howard Shook, a member of the City Utilities Committee, which approved the expense, was skeptical of the plan and asked why the city would spend money on meters that no one had complained about.

“This has a dismal, déjà vu quality about it,” said Shook, adding that some of those questions would have to be answered before the full council meeting next Tuesday.

The two contractors, who will each earn roughly $1.1 million, will work on an aggressive time line to check all of the meters by the end of the year. Beard said the firms, which have never worked with Atlanta on meter issues, would provide an independent view.

“Over the years, watershed wasn’t proactive. We want to provide a better level of confidence and trust,” Beard said. “ ... I am willing to live with the results.”

Because the city is under a federal court order to completely overhaul its sewer system, Atlanta residents pay the highest water rates in the nation. Thousands of customers have complained that their bills were wrongly and artificially spiked.

Bill Lucas, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of the high water bills, said news of the new initiative is good, but late.

“It has taken, realistically, a year longer than it should have,” Lucas said. “The whole issue around watershed is that a lot of people have dragged their feet for a long period of time. The big issues that happened last year are still out there. You still have a lot of people with these crazy bills.”

Lucas is optimistic about the fact that Beard will hire independent teams to come in and look at the meters, to eliminate any perception of bias.

“We are serious about this whole issue of customer service and the perception issue,” Beard said. “We have to get over where people thought we were not responsive to their needs.”

Beard said an audit of some 20,000 commercial meters is next on the agenda.