DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer, left, and Deputy Chief Operating Officer Ted Rhinehart field questions duiring a public meeting at Dunwoody City Hall about proposed water rate increases.

By John Schaffner

DeKalb County Wastewater Management officials laid out their case for $1.4 billion in proposed water and wastewater capital improvement projects during the next five years during a meeting at Dunwoody City Hall on Dec. 7.

Most of the 60-plus residents at the meeting were more focused on the 13 percent per year rate increase they face between 2012 and 2014 to fund the projects.

The proposal would nearly double water bills for some DeKalb residents. The monthly increase for the average user—who uses 6,000 gallons a month—would be between $9 and $11 in the first year, county officials said.

For a family that uses 4,000 to 20,000 gallons per month, they would see a 94 percent increase in five years.

The maximum bi-monthly bill — $165 in 2009 — would rise to $320 in 2014, county officials said.

In 2007, the county approved a 16 percent rate increase for each of the fiscal years 2009, 2010 and 2011 because of concerns over the condition of the water and wastewater systems.

Dist. 1 DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer, who represents the Dunwoody area of the county and co-hosted the meeting, asked two questions of the Watershed Management officials that seemed to be of concern to almost everyone attending the meeting:

  • What system maintenance and upgrades work was done with the additional revenues from the 16 percent rate increases approved in 2007?
  • If these 13 percent rate increases are approved for 2012-2014, when will Watershed Management be coming back to the commission and DeKalb residents for another rate increase?

“I get tons of phone calls about the water and sewer rates,” Boyer said. “I think the public needs to understand, if you ask for this how long is this going to last you?”

Boyer reminded Francis T. Kung’u, director of DeKalb’s Department of Watershed Management,  and Ted Rhinehart, deputy chief operating officer for the Infrastructure Group, that “2007 was not that long ago” and most residents expected the 16 percent increases passed then would be used for upgrades and the next rate increase would be years down the road.

Rhinehart said the county had planned ahead when rates were raised in 2007. However, he said,  when consumers complied with mandatory water restrictions, water use dropped about 7.5 percent in 2009, creating a $28.3 million loss. The county expects to lose about $34.3 million this year because of the water restrictions.

County officials said the $1.4 billion plan is necessary to replace two of the county’s three aging wastewater plants and make other system upgrades.

Rhinehart said the county wants to plan its overhaul, rather than be forced into federal or state mandated repairs, such as those the city of Atlanta has been dealing with for a decade.

The Dunwoody meeting was co-hosted by Dist. 5 Commissioner Lee May, who chairs the county’s Public Works, Economic Development and Planning Committee (PEP) and DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, who delivered opening remarks. .

The $1.4 billion project list is smaller than originally proposed. County commissioners have already scrapped about $500 million in planned improvements—primarily some work at the Polebridge Wastewater Treatment Plant and a tunnel project in southeast DeKalb to tie together the Polebridge and Snapfinger plants. .

Removing those projects allowed the annual increase to be dropped from 16 percent to the proposed 13 percent.

Of the remaining proposed projects, the most expensive items are:

  • $378 million for upgrades at the Snapfinger Wastewater Treatment Plant;
  • $65 million at the Polebridge Wastewater Treatment plant;
  • $38 million improvements to the Scott Candler Water Treatment Plant;
  • $179 million in water distribution system improvements;
  • $600 million in wastewater collection system improvements;
  • $82 million for water reuse and return of treated wastewater to the Chattahoochee River;
  • $36 million for purchase of vehicles and equipment needed for wastewater collection system cleaning and maintenance.

The Snapfinger wastewater center was built to last 50 years and it has been in use for 47 years.

“Much of the list is critical for safety purposes,” Rinehart told the Dunwoody group. “If we don’t at least get started on this program, we are on borrowed time.”

To pay for the $1.4 billion project, the county would borrow $1.2 billion by selling bonds and paying them back over 30 years, Kung’u said. Rhinehart said the remaining $200 million would be pay-as-you-go. Interest rates on the bonds are expected to be 3 percent, Rhinehart said.

The county’s project list shows several upgrades will be built in the Dunwoody area, which was described as one of the most challenging areas in the county for water flow. The Dunwoody projects include:

  • $600,000 for valves to help maintain water pressure in the elevated tanks that serve Dunwoody and Tucker;
  • $400,000 to build a new pump facility to replace an underground pump that’s beneath the intersection of North Shallowford and Peeler roads. The new pump would be built on park land near the corner of Chamblee-Dunwoody and Vermack roads;
  • $1.8 million to build an above-ground booster pumping facility and demolish the existing underground pump at 5207 Tilly Mill Road.?

It was indicated that without some of the fixes, water pressure in Dunwoody could become so low that firefighters could not effectively fight two big simultaneous blazes.

The county officials also said the poor condition of the system also might lead to boil-water orders.

Ellis told the Dunwoody group “a silver lining” of the proposed rate hike is the creation of hundreds of jobs to design and build the water and sewer system.

He added that the county can ensure that “some of our citizens … suffering the most have the most preference and opportunities for jobs in the construction, engineering and upgrades to be done.”

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.