By Amy Wenk
Sandy Springs City Council Oct. 20 asked citizens to pour out their water complaints.
About 15 people shared stories of abnormally high bills, neglected system components and poor customer service. The city also received at least 90 responses via their Web site (www.sandyspringsga.org).
Little of the feedback was complimentary to the Atlanta Watershed Department that provides the service to Sandy Springs.
“The water department is the worst consumer experience that I have ever seen,” said Jimmy Felton in his online submission. “If they were not a monopoly, they would be bankrupt.”
Sandy Springs officials are currently in mediation proceedings with Atlanta to renegotiate the water surcharge in its service delivery agreement. Residents pay a 21-percent surcharge for Atlanta water, even though a waterline from Johns Creek services about 75 percent of the city.
Sewer improvement costs also are embedded in water rates despite Sandy Springs not being part of Atlanta’s sewer system.
“We are currently being held hostage by the city of Atlanta and are paying for all the years that they did not invest in their infrastructure,” resident Cheryl Bohm said. “We shouldn’t have to bear that burden.”
Mayor Eva Galambos said Atlanta has neglected water system maintenance and improvements in the area. For instance, Sandy Springs has no alternate waterline even though state law requires it. If that waterline bursts, no treated water can reach the city.
“Paying 21 percent more is a plain rip-off,” Ed Gerber said. “If anything, we get less service. On our street, we have had leaks that ran down the street for a month before they responded to the calls.”
Other complaints included inaccurate and inconsistent readings of water meters, which have led to unusually high bills.
“I am fearful each month that I open my bill, never knowing what the amount will be or if it will be incorrect, because there is really no recourse but to pay it,” Donna Hayley said.
Bill Hicks said he has had four bills in a row charge him $400 to $800.
“Based on last year’s rates, this is a 200- to 400-percent increase with comparable usage rates,” Hicks said. “My 2009 water bill run rate will be five times what I have paid in the past.”
Residents also cited trouble with the new electronic meters the city is installing.
“Since the new water meter readers were installed, my water bill has gone from $25 a month to $200 a month,” said Marcus Flye, who lives off Tahoma Drive.
Lastly, customer service was a source of discontent for many citizens.
“Service is actively hostile to customers in our zip code, with both indifference to complaints and an apparent rush to cut off service with the slightest delay in payment,” John Bacon said.
Galambos said she foresees the water negotiations going to court. The public comments gathered will strengthen the city’s case, along with engineering studies, and show the 21-percent surcharge is unreasonable.
“I don’t promise you immediate relief,” Galambos said at the close of the Oct. 20 hearing. “But we will not rest until we solve it.”
If Atlanta refuses to lower the water surcharge, she said Sandy Springs may look to distribute its own water.