By John Schaffner

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and city water officials spent four hours Feb. 16 answering questions about billing errors and other customer service problems before the Georgia House Committee on State Planning and Community Affairs.

Republican Rep. Tommy Smith of Nicholls, the chairman of the committee, is threatening to get the state involved in water rates set by local governments after an uproar over skyrocketing water bills in Atlanta. He said he may introduce legislation to limit increases water systems are allowed to impose on their customers within one year of installing new water meters systemwide.

Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management was bombarded with complaints in December when it back-billed customers for a 27.5 percent rate increase that was supposed to have taken effect last summer.

Franklin said water customers have reason to be concerned about how bills have skyrocketed as the city has begun billing residents for a $4 billion water and sewer overhaul.

“When I get my water bill, I want to call the mayor and complain,” Franklin said.

The committee heard from a few city water customers who complained about bills of $1,000 or more and a city bureaucracy they said was unable or unwilling to resolve the problems.

Watershed Management Commissioner Rob Hunter told Smith’s committee that the glitch occurred because the City Council adopted the rate increase so close to the July 1 start of the fiscal year that it delayed the department’s billing.

Hunter said some city customers also were hit with huge unexplained spikes in their bills for enormous quantities of water they said they didn’t use. He blamed a “programming” malfunction discovered in 450 meters that caused them to read inaccurately. He said those meters and about 2,400 others that potentially had the same problem were fixed in one day.

The city is about six months from completing a three-year effort to replace 150,000 water meters with new models, Hunter told the committee.

He said the city has spent $7.3 million on a state-of-the-art billing system and $3.9 million on a call center to handle customer complaints. But he acknowledged his department makes mistakes. “We have made tremendous improvements,” he said. “However, we are nowhere near perfect, and we know it.”

Hunter appeared the previous week before the city’s Utilities Committee and Finance Committee and offered the same explanations for the problems that have caused such an uproar from water customers in recent months.

He told the Utilities Committee the department is working on automating the billing so that bills with a high one-month spike would go out only as an estimate and would be checked. He said the department routinely has to adjust less than 1 percent of the bills each month, which would equate to 1,500 bills per month.