After a city audit examined lingering billing issues within Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management, the agency is making changes to help end the jaw-dropping water bills some customers have received.
Chief among them, Watershed officials said Tuesday, is lowering the usage threshold that triggers a meter investigation.
Unusual water use is currently flagged when the amount exceeds 100 percent of the average monthly usage. But at the recommendation of the auditing office, that figure will be lowered to 50 percent higher than normal use. For example, a household that is typically billed $100 a month would have to use $150 worth of water for the city to send a water department worker to test the meter.
That change will be implemented by fiscal year 2015, Deputy Commissioner Michael Geisler said at a Tuesday city utilities committee meeting. Geisler said the department must prepare to make that adjustment.
The City Auditor’s Office recently released its audit of the water department, which maintains more than 166,000 water meters across five cities and Fulton, DeKalb, Coweta, Clayton and Fayette counties.
City auditor Leslie Ward also recommended the water department do more to communicate with residents when the city is investigating a water meter problem. Current practice involves sending out a technician to inspect a meter following an unusually high reading, but homeowners aren’t always notified of the investigation before receiving their bill, Ward said.
She recommends the city notify residents when a potential leak is being investigated with a phone call or by including a notice with the bill. The auditor also suggested Watershed complete the inspection before billing the resident.
That’s welcome news to Atlantans such as Blayne Beacham Macauley, who made headlines in 2012 after her monthly water bill skyrocketed from about $50 a month to $9,000.
“That’s what they should do,” Macauley said of the changes. “I don’t think I should ever have gotten a $9,000 bill, but I did.”
Watershed officials didn’t budge on her bill at first, but after heavy news coverage, the department replaced her automated meter with a new one. Immediately, her monthly bill for her three-bedroom cottage dropped back to around $50, she said.
Macauley said the city forgave all but $800 of the $9,000 bill, but she refuses to pay. And so she sends them a check for any amount over $800 each month, she said.
Watershed Management Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina said the department will implement the suggestions made in the audit, which also include developing a method for tracking how often her agency adjusts bills due to leaks or billing errors.
“There were no surprises,” Macrina said Tuesday of the report.
Macrina said the department is working to win back the confidence of Atlantans, who are charged some of the highest water and sewer rates in the country to help pay for $2 billion in sewer upgrades required by federal regulators.
The department has long faced heavy criticism stemming from myriad problems, including aging infrastructure, unforeseen high water bills and the city’s former reliance on estimated water use to determine the amount due.
In 2006, the city embarked on a $35 million project to install automated meters across Atlanta’s water system in an effort to improve billing accuracy, identify potential leaks and cut the time it takes to read meters.
Still, between 9 percent to 18 percent of accounts had at least one disputed bill or customer-requested meter investigation annually from 2007 to 2011, according to the auditor’s report. That figure dropped to about 12 percent in the first six months of 2012, by which time more than 95 percent of bills came from the automated meter readings.
However, it’s unclear whether the complaints stem from billing problems or an underground leak as the city doesn’t easily track those figures. But at the recommendation of the auditor, the department will develop a tracking method by the end of 2013, officials said.
“We want to make sure customers have confidence in meters and billing accuracy,” Macrina said. “We’re trying to do our homework upfront.”
Ward, whose department has conducted seven audits of Watershed, said the agency is improving.
“Going out and actually inspecting all the meters to see what repairs were needed on almost every single meter was a good step,” she said. “They seem to be intent on getting it fixed.”