By John Schaffner

It’s that time of year: City water rates increase another 12.5 percent on July 1 — part of the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management’s four-year plan to pay for updating and upgrading the city’s water and sewer systems.

As you pay that higher bill next month, you might notice a new $4.50 “convenience fee” if you pay the bill over the phone using a credit card or online with an electronic check.

Janet Ward, a spokeswoman for Watershed Management, said the fee is charged only to customers who choose to pay their water bills by credit card or electronic check over the telephone or using the city’s Internet payment site. It does not apply to transactions at the City Hall payment window, City Hall kiosk or at remote payment locations.

Ward said it also does not apply to electronic payments made through a bank’s Web site.

The city says it is not making any money by charging the $4.50 convenience fee, but Ward and others asked about the size of the fee could not recall hearing of any other “convenience fee” that came close to $4.50.

In 2008, the City Council passed budget legislation to allow the Department of Watershed Management (DWM) to recoup the costs it incurred by certain bill payment methods — credit card payments over the phone and checks over the Internet being two of those methods.

Apparently, there was a delay in implementing the fee because the department had to upgrade its Internet payment system to allow for charging customers the fee.

According to Ward and a handout distributed this month at Neighborhood Planning Unit meetings, Atlanta paid Wachovia Bank $611,000 in fees in 2008 for processing DWM’s credit card payments, and those fees for 2009 rose to $797,000 through June 1.

Ward said the $4.50 fee just covers what Wachovia is charging DWM.

Two questions remain unanswered by DWM:

• If there was even a thought that a fee of some amount was going to be charged to customers who took advantage of the online and telephone bill payment options heavily promoted to its customers, why didn’t DWM alert those customers in advance that the fee would be coming as soon as the internal systems were ready?

• How many of the city’s water/sewer customers make their payments over the phone using a credit card or by check over the Internet through DWM’s site?

Ward said the department has 150,000 metered customers, through which 1.2 million people are serviced. But she could not say how many of the 150,000 metered customers pay their bills using one of the two methods that would cause them to be charged $4.50 each time for the convenience.