Outstanding water bills reach $811,011

An ordinance to write off the loss was introduced Wednesday before the City Council’s Finance/Executive Committee. The council could vote on the matter next month.

Committee member Carla Smith said the city has hired collection agencies to recover the money but the results have been mixed.

“I hate it,” said Smith, who is also chairwoman of a committee that oversees the city’s water operations. “But some of the [debtors] have disappeared. I’m sure people in the private sector go through this.”

Nevertheless, it has not been a good week for city finances. The unpaid water bills admission comes two days after city officials disclosed they paid the Internal Revenue Service $1.6 million last week in penalties and interest on late payments to the city’s General Employee pension fund.

Councilwoman Felicia Moore said during Wednesday’s meeting that some residents have since contacted her with questions about the city’s competency.

“Citizens are really concerned it’s another thing the city can’t do right,” she said.

Atlanta finance officials noted Wednesday that city is holding the line on spending, having spent about $7.5 million below projections since July. But Chief Financial Officer Jim Glass said he will discipline workers in his department responsible for the late payments.

The water bill issue was on the council’s consent agenda, so there was no discussion over the unpaid bills.

An audit released this year found that the city had delinquent residential and commercial water and sewer accounts amounting to $51.8 million, the bulk of which were more than 120 days past due.

The city gives itself four years to collect unpaid water bills or write them off. Even after the bills are written off, city officials said they still try to collect on them.

Watershed Management department spokeswoman Janet Ward said 2 to 3 percent of water bills go uncollected each year. She said the department has collected about $40 million in delinquent bills this year.

The city typically shuts off service when a bill goes unpaid, but that doesn’t always help the department recover the money.

Ward said collection on some bills is complicated because some debtors are in bankruptcy while some dispute the balance and sue the city. Some debtors just can’t be found.

Carter & Associates, a company on the list to have its unpaid bill written off, furnished the Atlanta Journal-Constitution with a letter it said it sent to the Watershed Management department dated May 27, stating the company had tried for seven months to get an actual bill for its two accounts. A city spreadsheet has the company on the hook for nearly $30,000.

“We’re more than ready to pay any actual amount we owe,” said Tony Wilbert, a spokesman for the company. “Carter has been in business 51 years and it’s never had an issue like this before. We have been trying to get a correct water bill from the city.”

Glass said he would review the Carter situation.

“I want to get every penny we can get,” he said.

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