By John Schaffner

After months of no response from Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management to its extensive list of Buckhead residents with a variety of water system problems, the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods recently were told 40 percent of the disputes had been resolved within 30 days of receiving the list.

The department apparently had started working on resolving problems the neighborhoods group had presented on the day it was received. That information has been verified through outreach from BCN to those on the list who had problems.

The bad news was that no one conveyed that information back to BCN officers because the city’s attorneys mistakenly thought BCN was a party to a lawsuit filed against the city by eight individuals and told Watershed Management not to return phone calls or respond to emails and correspondence from BCN representatives.

Thus for months, BCN president Jim King and Kristy Gillmann, the Peachtree Hills representative who marshaled the information that was sent to the department, thought their work was being tignored. In fact, Gillman at one point was actually told by a Watershed Management manager that “the department was not going to give Buckhead residents preferential treatment.”

But, during the BCN’s August meeting, King spoke with the agency’s communications person Janet Ward, who was on vacation in Florida, to determine what was going on. Ward said at the time she did not know what King was talking about.

However, since that call, Ward attempted to clear all that up, King told those attending the Sept. 10 BCN meeting. That led to the face-to-face meeting at City Hall with DWM management.

“We had previously been told they had not addressed the information BCN had provided,” King reported Sept. 10. “Kristy worked very hard on compiling a database of all these problems people were having throughout the community. At the meeting DWM said they started working on the data the day they received it from BCN,” but they had not told BCN, likely on the advice of legal counsel.

At the meeting with DWM, King and Gillman were told that in the first 30 days, every house on the list had been visited and they had categorized all the issues into four different areas: adjustment needed/required; issues with automatic meter readers; need to investigate further; and outreach calls from Watershed Management needed to gather more information.

King told them they needed to have a better way to handle their calls and not just tell people they can’t help them. They agreed and said they are working on their customer service department and restructuring their customer-care call center and training their call-center personnel on how to deal with these issues with the restructuring. That means the person residents talk to will have some level of authority to do something, like place the issue in one of the four categories.

Gillmann asked for key performance indicators and if DWM could put metrics on their website with target benchmarks and timeframes of customer service issues, King reported. “They were very open to that and said they were working on it. They also were going to increase training for their customer-care agents on how to deal with the issues and work on mitigating how the processes seem to escalate,” King said. Gillman reportedly is going to provide DWM with anonymous feedback from all the complaints BCN gets.

King said, “We found that all to be very positive.”

The meeting took place just prior to the audit report of Watershed Management being released by the city’s internal auditor. That report was highly critical of the way the department has handled customer complaints, billing practices, cutting off of water service and fixing problems with faulty equipment.”

“The good news is that they are acknowledging the problems, moving to correct the problems and putting in a system to hold the department accountable,” King stated.

“It is hard to believe the legal department confused us with the lawsuit,” he told BCN members. “We also expressed our extreme displeasure with the fact those parties involved with the lawsuit are getting direct and open attention while we were trying to be supportive of the department and were ignored.”

According to King, City Council members Howard Shook and Clair Muller both visited with DWM Commissioner Rob Hunter and told him that Buckhead residentswere not seeking special treatment.