Disputes over DeKalb water bills continue as residents await relief

Even as DeKalb County is trying to eliminate widespread problems with inaccurate water bills, Toby Jennings received one for $2,009 this month.

During a public meeting with DeKalb CEO Mike Thurmond on Thursday, Jennings said that excessive water bills are still popping up, despite the government’s efforts.

When Jennings saw her giant bill, “I thought I was going blind.”

“It came out of nowhere. I’m just appalled,” said Jennings, who lives in Lithonia. “That’s an astronomical amount of money. If I watered my yard, washed four cars, did my laundry and took four showers a day, that’s what it would take for the bill to make sense. It’s on them to fix it.”

Jennings was among 50 residents who confronted Thurmond with stories of bills costing hundreds and thousands of dollars in some cases.

Thurmond, delivering his third water billing update in three months, encouraged residents to continue disputing their bills. He said the county is close to verifying charges for 27,000 customers whose bills have been withheld since last fall because of questions about their accuracy. The county previously mailed 8,000 bills that were recently validated.

“We’re on the precipice of having resolved all of these issues,” Thurmond said of the held bills. “I will get our system back to normal.”

Thurmond outlined the government’s efforts to replace water meters, correct math errors, resolve disputes, upgrade billing systems and improve customer service — actions he hopes will greatly reduce billings inaccuracies.

Most of those efforts will take time, but Thurmond says the county is close to stabilizing billing systems in the short term.

Those who dispute high bills are required to pay only their average amount until the issue is resolved.

Tonya Cotton, who lives in the Decatur area, said customer service representatives need to do a better job of working with residents to correct erroneous bills.

“They’ll say we’re just using that much water, but I don’t own a car wash. It’s just me and my husband,” said Cotton, who received a $491 bill last week. She’s asking Thurmond, “What are you going to do about it?”

Thurmond listed several actions the government has taken since he took office to end a problem that’s grown over decades:

The most exorbitant bills have been corrected; more customer service representatives and meter technicians have been hired; average call wait times are just 20 seconds; call volume has declined 43 percent compared to last year; and the county started a regular meter replacement plan.

In the meantime, the best recourse for aggrieved residents is to contest bills they think are wrong, he said.

“You can’t rebuild trust in a day,” Thurmond told the audience. “It’s going to take three to four years to correct the problems that were created over the last 40-plus years.”

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