Fixing DeKalb County’s current water billing “crisis” will take years and includes rebuilding the county’s trust with residents, according to CEO Mike Thurmond.

Thurmond told the Board of Commissioners at a special called Feb. 23 meeting his administration planned to concentrate time and resources to fixing a problem that includes earning the trust of residents.

“This is a journey, not an event,” Thurmond said. “We have to learn from our mistakes, but not dwell on them.”

A flowchart of causes of DeKalb’s water billing issues. Click to enlarge. (DeKalb County)

Thurmond said he and his staff uncovered more than 20 reasons that have led to inaccurate water billing with some residents receiving bills for thousands of dollars.

Angry residents packed meetings and a town hall last year to voice their complaints with their erroneous bills, leading the county to issue a moratorium on disconnecting water to those with complaints about their bills.

In a presentation titled “The New Day Project,” Thurmond explained the water billing difficulties are the result of decades of festering problems.

“We have suffered and literally been victimized by a systemic deficit in leadership, management and oversight,” Thurmond said.

Another significant issue is that water bill rates have jumped 212 percent between 2007 and 2015, Thurmond said, and the rate increases were not always told to customers.

“Same consumption, higher rate, higher bill,” Thurmond explained about some of the surprising bills.

Thurmond noted the county also only has 14 meter readers, with five in training, to cover more than 180,000 meters in the county. While not all meters need reading, there is a disproportionate number of meters to meter readers, he said.

Thurmond said he wants to implement a 90-day plan and also a plan to address issues over the next two to three years.

But no specific timetable has been established, leading to frustration from Commissioners Jeff Rader and Nancy Jester.

“I have no clarity on solutions,” Jester, of Dunwoody, said. “I think we really need something substantive about the process.”

Thurmond said there is no “short-term, immediate fixes.” He said an independent audit of the water-billing complaints approved by commissioners due in May would assist in outlining specific ways to fix problems.

Thurmond also noted that last year’s moratorium caused even more problems with some 37,000 bills not being sent out due to potential incorrect billing. Bills are now being sent out and a third-party mediation process will soon be set up, he said.

The mediation process will begin when a resident alerts the county to a problem with their bill, halting further billing. A hearing will then be scheduled for an attorney, serving as the mediator, to hear evidence from the county and the resident. The mediator will then render a final decision.

The intent is to resolve complaints as well as ensure a transparent process, Thurmond said.

A town hall is expected to he held in the near future to give a chance for residents to speak.