By John Schaffner

Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management (DWM), already facing a lawsuit filed by five residents, has received a petition signed by 152 Buckhead residents who are not associated with the lawsuit but who share the same complaint: skyrocketing water bills, sometimes reaching thousands of dollars and often occurring after the installation of new electronic water meters.

The petition, which was spearheaded by the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods (BCN) and was signed by its president, Jim King, was delivered June 15 to Watershed Management Director Rob Hunter and City Council members Howard Shook, Clair Muller and Felicia Moore, who represent portions of Buckhead.

Meanwhile, lawyer Michael Parsons said an amended complaint was to be filed by June 26 in the lawsuit against Atlanta, DWM, K&V Meter Automation, Neptune Technology Group and Khafra Operations.

Lori Ebert, Kristen Edwards, J.E. Godbout and Lisa Webb filed the lawsuit and recently added John Benator as a plaintiff.

Parsons said the period for the city and other defendants to respond to the lawsuit was extended.

In the case of one plaintiff, Webb said she overpaid her water bills by thousands of dollars just to keep the water flowing to her home, but the city still shut off her water.

The lawsuit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court, says overpayments citywide could top $1 million. Estimates have ranged from 615 to 3,500 new electronic meters that have been found to be defective, causing water bills to double or triple.

Parsons said the city’s Law Department is not handling the case for the defendants. Instead, the city has hired the Sutherland law firm, which has three lawyers working on the case.

Of the 152 people who signed the BCN petition — none associated with the lawsuit — 55 percent estimated the amount of their bills in dispute, and that figure totaled $105,000. Those signing the petition come from 28 neighborhoods in Buckhead.

Eight houses, all on Barrington Court in the Margaret Mitchell neighborhood in northwest Buckhead, were included in the petition, said Kristy Gillmann, the president of the Peachtree Hills Neighborhood Association, who brought the idea of the petition to BCN at its May meeting.

Gillmann said the eight single-family detached homes on that street all operate off the same water meter, and they claimed their water bill overcharges totaled $7,800.

Gillmann became involved in the issue when the city put the wrong-size electronic meter reading device on her residential meter, which caused her water bill to skyrocket. She took on City Hall and finally got an engineer with DWM to acknowledge the improper work done on her meter.

Gillmann then found the same problem existed for more than one of her Peachtree Hills neighbors, and she started an e-mail campaign to warn Buckhead residents of the problem. She then appealed for help from BCN, to find out how extensive the problem was throughout Buckhead.

Gillmann said she recently talked with Janet Ward, a public relations person for DWM, to correct a statement she had made that DWM “is not going to give people in Buckhead preferential treatment.” Gillmann said these Buckhead residents are not seeking any prefential treatment; they just want “fair treatment” regarding their water bills.

Amid the complaints against DWM, the City Council unanimously voted June 15 to issue $750 million in water and wastewater revenue bonds that will allow the department to continue work on the $4 billion Clean Water Atlanta Program. The resolution authorized the issuance of $750 million in bonds to be used for the capital improvement program overhauling the city’s water and sewer infrastructure, partly in response to federal mandates.

Originally sized at $600 million, the bond issue was increased by $150 million “due to an enthusiastic reception by the financial community,” according to a press release from the city. “Strong market demand also resulted in the city paying a lower yield for the debt it issues, and it gives city officials confidence that they will be able to access the capital markets for funding needs that will arise over the next two years.”