By John Schaffner
johnschaffner@reporternewspapers.net

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On Sept. 2, Wildwood resident Bill Lucas, who has been leading the fight with the Department of Watershed Management over excessively high water bills, met with Atlanta’s Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman and asked for two things:

DWM Commissioner Rob Hunter’s resignation and an independent third-party audit of the DWM operations.

On Sept. 7, Aman announced that Hunter had resigned as DWM commissioner, effective Sept. 10. Several of Hunter’s department managers also have been let go.

Hunter, who had become the focus of the Buckhead community’s outrage over excessively high water bills in recent months, will continue to serve as a technical adviser to the city on issues, such as the water/sewer consent decree modification, until the end of the year and assist with the department transition.

Lucas said, “I think it is great that Hunter resigned. He needed to go.” He said Hunter actually tendered his resignation the Friday after Lucas met with Aman.

However, Lucas added, “We can’t lose focus on the big issue. We have a huge problem and they need to immediately solve the problem.”

Lucas met with Aman and Reese McCranie from Mayor Kasim Reed’s office for an hour. “We were able to discuss many of the different issues that are happening as well as the community meeting that we had with Commissioner Hunter on Aug. 23 at the Northside Methodist Church.”

Lucas reported after the Sept. 2 meeting that the mayor has set up a “strike team” to immediately “deal with the problems that the city is having with the water department. But I requested that the COO bring in an outside auditor to do a forensic audit of the water department. Aman said that he would not be adverse to that but there were obvious budget issues.”

Simply, the city does not have the money for such an independent, third-party audit.

Over the last month, DWM has been in Atlanta’s spotlight, but not in a good way.

Several workers were fired, for example, when they circumvented the city’s purchasing policies. No criminal charges were filed, but city officials said their actions created a bad precedent.

But there were also several arrests in the department. Two water workers were arrested for taking customer money under the table to fix their high water bills. Two other workers, men who install water meters, were also arrested for stealing junked meters and selling the cooper.

Aman is making other organizational changes at DWM and announced that newly appointed deputy commissioner for the Department of Public Works, Dexter White, will serve as DWM interim commissioner. White brings 16 years of experience as a department head, including 10 years as a Public Works Director, and has extensive experience with complex watershed issues.

In his previous roles, White established a stormwater utility program, implemented and managed the water line replacement plan and managed a water meter replacement program. White also established a four-year program for Sanitary Sewers Evaluation System (SSES). White will continue to focus on improving customer service and thoroughly reviewing the billing operations of DWM.

“With Rob’s departure, we are working to ensure the steady transition of leadership at the Department of Watershed Management. I have the utmost confidence in Dexter White and his abilities to lead this department,” said Aman.

In addition, James Beard was named the new deputy commissioner of finance for DWM, replacing interim deputy commission Angelo Veney, who will remain with the department.

“I came to the City eight years ago to implement the federally mandated consent decrees, manage the $4 billion capital program and organize the Department of Watershed Management,” Hunter said. “By the end of the year I will have substantially accomplished those goals.”

Mayor Reed said, “I thank Commissioner Hunter for his years of public service. His dedication of working to comply with the consent decrees has allowed billions of development investment dollars in Atlanta through the avoidance of a sewer moratorium.”

Hunter was named Commissioner of the Department of Watershed Management in July 2004. Prior to that appointment, he served as Deputy Commissioner for Engineering since

November 2002. He was intimately involved in the organization of the department, which, for the first time, incorporated the City’s wastewater and drinking water systems and operations into one unit.

Hunter worked closely with the Mayor’s office and the Atlanta City Council to develop and implement the 2004 and 2008 water and sewer rate increase packages and the sales tax (MOST) public referendums, which have enabled DWM to continue funding an operational budget in excess of $500 million and capital improvements and rehabilitation for the drinking water and wastewater systems.

It likely was a citywide outcry about excessively high water bills—especially those in Buckhead—that ultimately led to Hunter’s resignation.

Lucas said the bill for his Buckhead residence went from $80 to $251, while one of his neighbors got a $4,000 bill.

“I was shocked and a bit confused when we got our bill. It had never been that high before,” said Angela Davis, president of the Collier Green Condominiums on the southwest edge of Buckhead, about the bill that went from $9,000 last month to $17,000 now. “What’s going on?” she asked.

Aman has indicated the city is quickly trying to figure that out. Aman spent most of the Sept. 2 morning meeting with Hunter before meeting with Lucas.

“I am happy that we came to this point. The problem is not completely solved, but we made huge inroads today,” said Lucas, after that meeting.

Aman said the city will implement plans “to address what issues we have,” including a better form of communicating with residents and applying the city’s established rules on addressing problems and complaints. For example, anyone who complains of a spiked bill can appeal it and not pay the contested amount.

Lucas again said, “It is important for everyone to know that if you had an issue in May, June, July or now in August, etc., that you must file a formal dispute with the water department in writing and fax it to them. Please be patient because their fax machines are ringing off the wall.” He also suggests that people call the following day “to inform customer service that you are disputing the bills and that you have faxed in the form.”

He also says it is very important to write down everything. Write down the day and time that you called and exactly who you spoke to. If you are disputing any bills you should fill out and fax a dispute form for each individual dispute.

Lucas points out, “It is also important to know that you will only be required to pay your average bill amount [prior to the massive spikes], and again tell them that you are doing that. Don’t allow Watershed customer service to bully you,” he adds. “Unfortunately almost all of us have long paid those insane bills, and even if you have paid all of them, please go back and file a dispute form for each problem bill.”

If you need assistance with the DWM, Lucas says you can contact him at billjlucas@comcast.net or by calling 404-218-8439.

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Below is  a sampling of emails received by editor at large John Schaffner following his story “Buckhead residents in water fight with DWM” in the Aug. 27-Sept. 9 edition of the Buckhead Reporter.

Mr. Schaffner:

I too am a Buckhead resident with extremely high water bills (July = $617 and August = $874).  I’d like obtain contact information for anyone (residents, DFM representatives, Yolanda Adrean) who can assist me to resolve this billing issue.  My ave. bill: A low of $55 and high $103.

I too called DWM’s customer service and was told my meter was checked for proper operation and is working properly (What, you’re checking my meter?  Prior to my call?   Really?  You noticed without my prompting, that my last two bills totaled more than 2009’s annual expense?).  The representative of DFM’s customer relations reiterated to me, “your meter is working properly” and suggested I call a plumber to identify/ find the leak.

Your article indicates payment (in the interim, while the issue is sorted out) should be made to DFM based on average monthly expense…like a good citizen (that doesn’t want her water shut)…I begrudgingly paid both invoices.  Great…I wonder if I need to take out a second mortgage to pay my monthly water bill in September.

Really? One person + one dog consumes $874 of water in one month?  Funny, I haven’t had to pull out the canoe to navigate the yard yet…honestly, that much water…wouldn’t the house be flooded?

Sorry to drone on…obtaining contact info. was the purpose of my communication.  Any help you can offer would be appreciated!

Regards,

Cheryl Miller

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John Schaffner:

I read your article in the 8/27-9/9 paper and would like to know Bill Lucas’ contact information. I, too, had an extremely high July water bill, up $700 from the past month, before my water meter was even changed to the new meter.

I live in Brookhaven, on club Drive. I have a friend who lives on Ridgewood Road who is experiencing the same issues. Is it ironic that the high bills keep coming from city of Atlanta residents who live in affluent areas?  I think there is more to this.

I’ve been in dispute for over 18 months on water related bill. I think the city has been lucky to avoid this sort of public call-out before this.

Thank you,

Missy Madden

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John Schaffner:

Just read your article.

I have had my issues too with the DWM.

The key is to speak to people at managerial level when one calls in for a problem.

Another issue is the diameter of the water pipe going from the meter to the house. If an incorrect pipe diameter is used with a certain meter, and visa versa, one will get a wrong meter reading.

Technicians when installing new meters must make sure these meters are hooked up to pipe with the diameter the meter calls for.

Perhaps something to look in to.

Kind regards.

Bob Koch

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John Schaffner:

I just recently read your article on the disputes with the DWM. I have an ongoing dispute from last summer along the exact same lines as many of the residents in your article. Does Bill Lucas have an email that I can contact him ?

Thank you

Susan

Susan Saint

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Email to DWM:

I have previously appealed water bills incorrectly assessed on the above account in December 2009 and January 2010, totaling $250, which you confirmed in your email of 8/17/10 is being processed for review, though I do not understand why this appeal will take “another 6 months-1 year” as noted in your email, as it has been pending now for over 6 months.

I have also now received my recent bill for 7/7/10-8/9/10 in the amount of $423.47, which again is clearly in error, as it is over 10 times higher than our normal water use, and we have confirmed that we have no leaks or unusual water use this past month.

Please therefore accept this as notice of our appeal of this recent water bill, in addition to the prior appeal.

We do not understand why or how these excessive bills are being assessed, and many of our neighbors have experienced the same problem. I have also previously advised you that the meter at our home appears broken, as the cover has broken and fallen into the sidewalk, which not only appears to make it impossible to get a proper reading at this meter, but poses a significant hazard to pedestrians.

As we do not understand the delay in processing the appeals of these incorrect bills, and as we have been forced to pay them pending a resolution of these appeals, we are copying city council members and neighborhood association representatives in the hope that they might be able to assist you in timely resolving this matter.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Clark H. McGehee

(The following was a response received by Clark McGehee from Watershed Management to his original email to DWM regarding his bill, which is printed above.)

Dear Clark McGehee,

Thank you for using The City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management’s online service. The appeals process could take up to 6months to 1 year before it’s resolved. We do apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact our Customer Service Call Center at 404-658-6500, Monday through Friday from 7:00am to 8:00pm ET.

Thank you.

JS

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Mr. Schaffner:

I read your article in the local paper last night and have also had an “unexpected” increase in my water bill.  We are now in dispute over our water bill which was through the roof for June and July, yet reasonable for August.  I was wondering if you could forward this email to the gentleman in your article Bill Lucas so I can contact him to see what he has found out.  I assume that there are many more residents who have experienced this issue and we must continue to fight it as a group.

Thank-you for your help in this matter and for your article informing the public.

Linda Collier

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John Schaffner:

I  didn’t know of the meeting, but I am on my second round of disputes over water with the city.  Last year they changed my meter out in July then the next 2 months my bill was around $655.00.I had a sprinkler man and a plumber come check to see if I had a leak. And of course I didn’t.  My neighbor also had a large over charge but he paid it and they immediately  gave him a credit on his account.  I spent 8 months in dispute, paying the normal amount, and they finally dropped the over charge.  Then last month I got another huge bill, $655.00. We were out of town at least 3 weeks of the month. I went ahead and paid it, sent in a dispute, remembering my neighbors ease in handling it.  My personal feeling is that the city has NO MONEY and is knowingly overcharging so they can use our money while giving us a credit!   I think its deliberate and needs to be investigated, and possibly file suit against the city! This month my bill was $352.00 which is still way higher than normal. Our average CCF is between 5 and 10 which is about a $120.00 a month. Please stay on this. They are stealing form us under the threat of turning off our water!

Thank you, Susan Gilbert

Dellwood Dr.

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John Schaffner:

I read your piece in the recent ” Buckhead Reporter ” about the water bills. I would like to contact Bill Lucas to email him about my ridiculous bills ( $1700 sewer charge one month ). Would you please let me know how to contact him. T

Thanks,

Tim Cambias