The city of Sandy Springs continues to press for local control — and possible privatization — of its Atlanta-operated water system, including a recent meeting of its top administration officials. Meanwhile, the Atlanta City Council president is recalling her city’s disastrous experiment in water privatization as a cautionary tale.

Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore.

Felicia Moore, now the Atlanta council president, was one of the few official voices objecting to her city’s 1998 water system privatization, which failed after less than five years amid complaints about bad service and rising costs. She said privatization can be a good model, but only with heavy due diligence ahead of time.

“We were making a huge decision without, I believe, adequate information to make that decision on,” Moore said.

Sandy Springs, which claims that Atlanta’s water system is not receiving good maintenance or repairs, is attempting that sort of due diligence as it pushes to possible take control of the system itself. City leaders have said privatization is a likely model if that happens, though the entire idea is still conceptual. Sandy Springs is famous for privatizing most of its city departments.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul had requested a meeting with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to discuss the issue. That meeting has not happened, but emails obtained through an open records request show that Sandy Springs City Manager John McDonough and Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Richard Cox met on July 11 and talked about the water issue.

“Our goal is to work cooperatively with city of Atlanta to assess the condition of the water infrastructure and to determine a value,” McDonough wrote in a post-meeting letter to Cox. “We believe that the outcome of this process can be a win-win for both of our cities.”

The city of Sandy Springs’ 17-point open records request to the city of Atlanta for water system documents, as shown in an excerpt of a Jan. 12 email sent by the office of Sandy Springs City Attorney Dan Lee. Click for a larger version.

McDonough also complained that Atlanta has yet to respond to a six-month-old open records request from Sandy Springs for water system operational and billing information. That request, filed by Sandy Springs City Attorney Dan Lee, is a 17-point list seeking a wide range of information, which city officials have previously said is both for due diligence and for preparing a possible lawsuit to seize control of the system if necessary.

Responses from Atlanta’s Law Department blame the delayed response partly on a cyber attack that shut down various government systems in March. The Law Department also notes that Sandy Springs’ vast and expansive document request would involve “a large number of staff members and require weeks of investigation and effort to cull the requested records.”

Moore said the council has not received any direct information about Sandy Springs’ water concerns from either city’s administration, so there is no sign of how the council might respond to a deal. She added that the council also has not recently received serious systemic complaints about the Department of Watershed Management’s services. All cities around the country have water system issues, she said.

“People have to take into context, it’s a huge system,” said Moore. “And it’s an aging system. It’s no different from any water system around the country” that needs upgrades.

“But Sandy Springs is a city, so I can understand why they may want to have control of their own water system,” Moore said, without expressing any personal opinion on the matter, saying she had heard of it only through news reports.

Water system control “was the first big issue in my first term in office over 20 years ago,” said Moore, when she recalls being the lone “no” vote against the privatization.

Facing similar complaints about service and costs, Mayor Bill Campbell in 1998 started a privatization contract with United Water Services. It was a 20-year deal, but lasted barely five years, with Mayor Shirley Franklin pulling the plug in early 2003.

The city complained that United Water was struggling with maintenance, emergency repairs and billing, and understaffing the system while demanding tens of millions dollars more than authorized in the contract. It turned into a legal dispute that ended with Atlanta paying the company $6 million and the company paying the city $1 million, according to Atlanta Business Chronicle reports at the time.

“One of, I think, the biggest problems I had was some of the best practices you should follow before you go into a privatization situation,” said Moore.

A fire hydrant on Sandy Springs’ Kayron Drive leaked heavily for more than 10 weeks in the summer of 2017 until being repaired after Reporter coverage. The city of Sandy Springs says such leaks are one of many problems with the Atlanta-run water system. (File/John Ruch)

The big problem was lack of basic information on both sides.

She said that when a city is going to “turn over an asset of that magnitude, [it is important to] have a handle on what the assets are and the state of condition they’re in… We hadn’t done a lot of those things.”

“That’s all water under the dam, pun intended,” said Moore. But there are some lessons for other cities. She said the experience did not sour her on the concept of privatization.

“Privatization, in and of itself, doesn’t mean it won’t work,” said Moore. “I think if you do it right and make sure you know what you’re getting into… it may work for you. It works in other parts of the country.” And if Sandy Springs did end up running its own water system, privatization “probably would work better for them” since it does not currently have its own water department staff to start with.

– Evelyn Andrews contributed

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.