Virginia-Highland condo residents say meter cheated them

The tree-lined street in front of Highlands on Rosedale, a 16-unit condominium complex in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highlands, seems peaceful enough. But condo members say they have been quietly robbed every day for more than a decade.

The culprits, they say, were Atlanta’s indifferent bureaucracy and a busted water meter.

“The city has basically stolen from us,” Patrick Hawkins, president of the condo board, said. “All we want is what they overcharged us.”

The city’s Department of Watershed Management counters that it was only partly wrong, fixed the meter and will return $1,696.78. But the board estimates it has overpaid about $22,000 in the past decade.

The saga of broken water meter NE51880634 may seem small compared with Atlanta’s immense financial challenges such as plummeting revenue and skyrocketing pension costs. But it highlights a challenge facing the incoming administration of Kasim Reed: customer service.

Peter Aman, Reed’s incoming interim chief operating officer, said he plans major changes in how departments deal with complaints, including requiring managers to sit in on complaint calls monthly, creating better ways to track and resolve them, and better records.

If this small condo’s squabble with the water department is any indication, Atlanta has a lot of work to do.

The Rosedale story starts in the late 1990s, according to Evan Richmond, a condo member who said he has been contacting the city about high water bills for at least 12 years. He said the condo’s two water meters each handle eight units. One meter was above ground on the street, the other no one could find. Readings from the one on the street were normal and steady; those from the mystery meter were not.

Richmond has a three-year history of the two water bills. One was about $7,500, the other about $15,000.

The board has minutes showing calls and complaints to the city, Richmond said.

“For a long time we kept bringing in plumbers, thinking it was us,” Hawkins said.

Richmond and Hawkins said when condo members would call, city workers would come and check, but not fix anything. And each time the condo members called, they had to explain the whole story, as if no records existed of their prior complaints. Through it all, the bills kept coming in.

The board says it eventually threatened to contact The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the department sent workers who finally found the broken, buried meter and repaired it. After two months of meter readings with a replaced, working meter, the city agreed to reimburse the condo board, but only going back to early 2008.

Erica Cockfield, Watershed director, said the department’s records indicate the meter provided good readings until February of last year, so it would only reimburse for the months afterward. In a lengthy letter to Richmond, she said the department was giving a partial reimbursement but stressed repeatedly that it was not required to do so.

Cockfield said she examined the case herself. She said department records show no one complained about the meter until earlier this year. She said “decorative stones” placed recently may have covered up the meter, which she states is a violation of city code.

Hawkins said he put the stones down, but never saw a meter. It was covered by dirt.

Cockfield said the condo owners can appeal her decision, but as far as she is concerned, it’s final.

How could the city have taken legitimate readings on a meter that, everyone acknowledges, had been buried for years? How was it read when it was broken?

The board estimates it’s out thousands of dollars, and isn’t satisfied with Cockfield’s response.

“At least if I was mugged, it would happen once and it would be over,” sighed Richmond. “This has gone on for years. ”