Starting with three hotels that owed more than $400,000 for overdue water bills, DeKalb County’s government is cracking down on delinquent property owners with large debts.
The collection efforts target some of “the most egregious offenders” who have contributed to more than $71 million in past-due bills that have built up over the last decade, said Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May.
The hotels, located near the intersection of I-285 and I-20 in south DeKalb, were told to pay up by Sept. 23 or else their water service will be shut off, according to disconnection notices mailed by the county this week. Without water, the hotels would be forced out of business.
The county’s threat already got results. Two of the hotels paid their bills, totaling $141,756, on Friday after being contacted for comment by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“This serves as a notice to businesses that if you’re not paying your water bills, you’ll be held accountable,” May said Friday.
Economy Inn on Wesley Chapel Road is the most serious offender, according to the county, with $259,848 owed for water service. No one answered the phone at the hotel Friday.
Both hotels experienced sharp increases in their water bills this year and have been trying to resolve the billing dispute with the county, according to a statement from their owner, Stablegold Hospitality.
“In order to expedite the process, and ensure no disruption of service to those staying at either location, the hotels have recently paid the bills in full,” the statement said. “However, it is still our desire to meet with county officials in the very near future to determine the actual overage, and to be reimbursed for any amount we might have been overcharged.”
Though DeKalb residents often complain about high water bills in recent years, county officials say they are pursuing businesses with a history of nonpayment.
DeKalb Commissioner Larry Johnson said the water shutoff notices come after years of efforts to make sure businesses pay what they owe.
“It’s not fair for the people who are paying their bills on time when we have folks that aren’t,” said Johnson, whose district includes the area where the hotels are located. “This is unacceptable.”
A resident in the area, Joscelyn O’Neil, said it’s about time.
“If they’re not paying the water bill, then the rest of us are paying it with high rates,” she said. “It shouldn’t have taken this period of time, for it to be thousands and thousands of dollars, for this bill to be paid.”
The problem began sometime around 2006, when DeKalb’s previous leaders stopped consistently enforcing water cut-off notices on commercial accounts, said DeKalb Chief Operating Officer Zach Williams. It’s unclear why that decision was made, but he said the government is putting a stop to it.
The $71 million in uncollected water fees was discovered by new management in the county’s water billing department earlier this year, Williams said. Roughly half that amount may be uncollectable from people whose businesses have gone bankrupt or who have disappeared.
“It’s our intention going forward to balance our responsibility not only to get the bills right, but to ensure that people are in fact paying for their usage of water,” Williams said.