By John Schaffner
johnschaffner@reporternewspapers.net

A number of Buckhead residents are again in a water fight with Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management over their bills the last couple of months – some of which jumped from less than $200 a month to $1,100, $2,800 and even $4,000 per month.

On top of high bills, they say they are even more outraged that the DWM’s customer service representatives either show little concern about their problems or that nothing seems to be corrected after complaints are filed.

DWM Commissioner Rob Hunter on Aug. 23 faced a respectful but angry crowd of more than 50 Buckhead homeowners who wanted to know why their water bills had jumped from under $200 in the spring to between $700 and $2,800 and more in June and July.

The meeting, which was arranged at the request of Wildwood neighborhood resident Bill Lucas, drew representatives from at least six south Buckhead neighborhoods where residents have experienced water bills that increased more than tenfold over what they traditionally have been, according to Lucas.

The meeting was held at Northside United Methodist Church on Northside Drive next to North Atlanta High School. It began at 5 p.m., following a private meeting between Hunter, Lucas and Dist. 8 Atlanta City Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean. The meeting lasted until after 7 p.m.

At the end of the meeting, Lucas said, “I am not pleased with what took place here tonight. The discussion went around in circles led by Hunter, and no solutions emerged for the problems homeowners are facing with these ridiculous water bills.”

If you want to dispute your bill

If you have a bill you think is too high, it is important to file a dispute with the city.  Dispute forms can be found online and can be e-mailed or mailed to Watershed Management. For information on the process, go to www.atlantawatershed.org/custsrv/appeals.htm.

If you want to talk to a person about your problem, call 404-658-6500, but don’t forget to fill out the dispute form.
According to the dispute form, you should pay all amounts due, whether you agree or not.  DWM will refund your money if the dispute is resolved in your favor.  Sometimes you can get the person on the phone to agree to a reduced payment.

Be sure to write down the name(s) of individuals you talk to about your bill dispute.  If they don’t give you a tracking number, ask for it and keep it with your dispute file.

Lucas said he was sure none of those who attended the meeting to present their problems to the commissioner “went away from the meeting feeling any better and thinking they had heard any solutions discussed to address their problems.”

Lucas, who is an entrepreneur, has volunteered to gather information about the water bills and lead a consumer protest against Watershed Management to call attention to the problems and demand the city water department find solutions to keep the problem from recurring.

Lucas personally has forwarded to Hunter and the DWM customer-service e-mails from 75 homeowners who believe the amounts of their June and July water bills were beyond reason. Lucas said one resident who e-mailed about a $4,000 July water bill was unable to attend the meeting.

North Buckhead Civic Association President Gordon Certain, who could not attend the meeting because of a conflict, told the Buckhead Reporter, “I asked an innocent question in an e-mail: ‘Did anyone have high July water bills?’ So far I have received 40 e-mails complaining about high, to very high ($500), to amazingly high, water bills,” he added. “One was over $1,000, one was $1,500, and the highest was $2,800.”

Certain sent out his e-mail after discussing the issue with Lucas. However, Certain added, “For what it’s worth, we got our July/August water bill for $116, which is entirely normal.”

One man in the audience told Hunter he could not understand how his water bill went from an average of $120 per month prior to June to $2,800 in July, even taking into consideration the 12.5 percent rate increase that went into effect July 1.

That resident’s tale of anguish was just one of many – one after another – presented to Hunter during the two hours. He promised his department would check into the cause and make adjustment where necessary.

Hunter said that one of the problems has been that the city has had 150,000 old water meters in use that, because of their age, have been giving readings that are much lower than they should have been. Those meters have now mainly been replaced by new meters that are giving true readings. That, he said, is coupled with the rate increase. Since 2004, Hunter said, the city has tripled water rates.

Hunter, who had an entourage of customer service representatives at the meeting to work with individual homeowners, told the group that if their water bills are too high, they should “dispute the bill” and his department will come out and check the meter operation. If the homeowner is not happy with the findings of the field representatives, he or she can appeal the dispute resolution.

But Hunter warned those at the meeting, don’t just ignore paying the bill because Watershed Management will turn off the water if the bills are unpaid.

Kevin Wade, who lives on Norfleet Drive in the Springlake neighborhood, recounted how his average water use of 6 to 7 ccf (a ccf being 100 cubic feet of water) jumped to 34 ccf in June and July when his whole family was away in Seattle. The average water use by customers is 8 ccf, according to Hunter.

“I am not a convinced or happy consumer,” Wade told Hunter. “I am pissed.”

Tom Tate, who lives on Kipling Drive in Buckhead, added, “We all are pissed. That’s why we are here.”

One woman stated: “I am feeling held hostage by this new meter.” She said her water bills were $500 in July, $900 in August. “There is no way to verify or check the amount of water used,” she said about the new meters.

The woman said her daughter in Switzerland has a device in her home that lets her read the water meter, gas and electric to see what is being used, and asked why the city could not supply such a device.

Hunter said the city is in discussions with the meter supplier, Neptune, about the feasibility of just such an in-house reader device like the ones used to read outside temperatures.

Hunter said the meters have a very small rate of failure and generally are not the problem. He also said the meter reading is all done electronically, without input by humans.

However, in response to Springlake resident Bonnie Kimmerly’s questions about her high water bills in relation to those of her neighbor, who constantly waters his lawn, Hunter said that sometimes human error is involved when meter installers record the meter identification incorrectly for two adjacent properties.

Another problem is that a lot of homeowners are having to spend several hundred dollars hiring plumbers to demonstrate that the problem isn’t on their side of the meter. Even if they win an appeal, they can never recoup that expense.

Also on Aug. 23, Harrison Wadsworth III, who lives in Washington, D.C., e-mailed the Buckhead Reporter about the situation involving his 80-year-old mother, Irene Wadsworth, who lives on Valley Green Drive in North Buckhead. His mother lives on Social Security and his deceased father’s teacher retirement.

He wrote that his mother’s water bill “went from an average of about $210 to $2,000 for the July bill.” He said he had called DWM in late July to dispute the June water bill of $700. His mother received notice of the July bill on Aug. 20 and doesn’t know what to do.

“The Watershed Management people reread the meter and said it was fine and told her to have a plumber come and check for leaks,” Wadsworth wrote. “My mother did that on Saturday (Aug. 21), paying $200 to the plumber, but no significant leaks at all. Today she called again and was told to just pay the bill, but she doesn’t have the money.”

Wadsworth asked in his e-mail: “How are people supposed to pay water bills like that?” He was hoping Hunter would have some answers at the community meeting.

“The commissioner is an expert at spinning and did a fantastic job of not actually answering the issue of why some people had exorbitant water bills,” Lucas said. “I intend to escalate this issue as much as I can. It is not good enough to say we don’t know why this is happening, and it is definitely not good enough to blame the homeowners,” he added.

John Schaffner

John Schaffner was founding editor of Reporter Newspapers.