By John Schaffner

Rob Hunter, the commissioner of Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management, held a press conference at City Hall Jan.28 to announce that the city does not have a problem with billing its water customers, but a problem with water customers who do not pay their bills.

The 45-minute session with the media was designed to address a flood of public complaints that arose in December and January. Many of the city’s water customers complained of receiving bills in December that included 27 percent water rate increase charges that were supposed to have been billed in July, then within days received letters threatening to cut off water service because of nonpayment of past-due charges.

Some actually had their water shut off and had to have Watershed Management turn the service back on.

Some city water customers complained of having their water turned off even after they paid the December bill.

Though the Department of Watershed Management knew for about a year that the water rates were going to increase 27 percent July 1, the department was unable to process the July/August water bills with the new rates.

It apparently took months for the department to realize it had not properly billed customers at the beginning of the fiscal year, so the new rate for the July/August billing was attached to the December bills — along with a bonus for the city of a late fee for the unpaid increase in rates.

Hunter apparently does not consider the delayed billing and the cutoff threats to be city problems. He said the city is “doing a wonderful job” dealing with its 1.2 million water customers. That total includes customers in Sandy Springs and other communities outside the Atlanta city limits.

Regarding customers who are complaining about getting their water cut off, Hunter said, by and large, they didn’t pay their bills and deserved to have their water cut off.

Hunter said complaints on the city’s 150,000 metered accounts average about 5 percent in any month — even in December and January, when Atlanta placed the surcharge on the portion of the bills that related to correcting the July water rates.

Doing the math, that means accounts in dispute average 7,500 per month or more than 89,000 per year.

Atlanta cut off an average of 7,422 water customers for nonpayment every month in 2008, a dramatic increase from the 2,933 customers cut off per month in 2007.

Hunter explained that the city code requires Watershed Management to cut off users before they get 30 days delinquent in paying bills. He said the department is now working close to that mandate. So a customer could be cut off a day after becoming delinquent on paying a bill.

“I want to make the case we are treating everybody fairly and equally,” Hunter said at the press event. “We are doing what city code wants and what our customers want.”