Infrastructure Is Boring Until You Get A $5,000 Water Bill

George Chidi, at a water bill public meeting in DeKalb County.
George Chidi, at a water bill public meeting in DeKalb County.

For the next water bill public meeting in DeKalb, I note that Intown Ace Hardware is closest for picking up pitchforks and torches, although I might recommend the Home Depot on Lawrenceville Highway for bulk volume purchases.

I’ve been going to various flavors of DeKalb County public meetings for years. I have never seen the Maloof Auditorium as full as I did last night. It was standing room only, with people packed to the back wall and some in the hallway, filled with the kind of morbid chuckle one hears just before the killer reaches for an ax.

DeKalb’s water department appears to have a billing problem.

Specifically, a small but significant number of DeKalb residents have received water bills ranging from the surprising — bills that merely doubled or tripled — to the surreal, like a woman who suddenly started receiving $6,000 water bills for no discernable reason.

The county expects people to pay. When there’s a dispute, the county expects people to hire a plumber and find the cause. When a plumber certifies that there’s no leak … the county often still expects people to pay. The dispute process presumes the customer is always wrong, a problem Zach Williams, DeKalb’s chief operating officer, apologized for at the start of the meeting.

That did nothing, of course, to stanch the grumbling.

I’ve been following this issue on and off for a while. I had a huge bill about seven years ago, went through the dispute process, waited on the bench for three hours and sat in a little plastic chair while pleading my case, and ended up paying less than I was billed … and more than I thought made sense.

A couple of years ago, a friend received the kind of bill that bankrupts people — thousands of dollars, apparently because of a metering issue that the county only just caught up with. She introduced me to the Unbelievable DeKalb Water Bills group on Facebook.

Anyone who thinks Facebook activism is feckless touchy-feely “awareness-building” should have been in the room last night. Assuming they could have found somewhere to stand, that is.

I’ve seen this before, with the T.R.A.G.I.C. teacher advocacy group that emerged after Gov. Nathan Deal started playing games with the state health insurance plan a couple of years ago. A month later, thousands of people were mobilizing through Facebook, sharing their stories.

The billing issue has been building for some time. News stories about outrageous billing errors began bubbling up around 2014. The county’s executive turmoil has made solving the issue problematic. Never mind the interim CEO situation — the water department has had a rotating band of leaders for years.

Commissioners Kathie Gannon, Nancy Jester, Larry Johnson, Mereda Davis-Johnson and Jeff Rader hosted the event. Jester has been a particularly brutal critic of how the county has handled water and sewer issues, keeping a running count on her Facebook page about how many days the county has gone without a standing public works committee. Interim CEO Lee May had a prior engagement with the NAACP in Athens and did not attend.

Commissioner Sharon Barnes-Sutton sneaked in three-quarters of the way through the meeting and sat in the back after most people had cleared out.

Because it wasn’t just stupid-high bills that left people sputtering mad last night. It was a sense that the county just didn’t care. Some customers compared the county to the mafia. Some wondered if people in the department were personally enriching themselves through these billing errors. Some wondered if any of the commissioners even paid water bills themselves. The Facebook group has threads wondering how to get criminal prosecutions started.

All that is a bit much, of course. One is generally better off presuming stupidity before conspiracy. Screwing up is easy. Conspiracy is hard.

Consider the new water meters the county is rolling out.

The new meters which allow for staff to read meters through wireless transmission could be helping with the billing problem, though I suspect no one in that room would believe it. Mark Niesse at the AJC (who, by the way, is turning out to be one of the best beat reporters I’ve seen at the paper) reported last month that the error rate fell from 1,140 in the first half of 2014 to 468 in the first half of this year. Most of that comes from a massive reduction in misread meters.

But the number of new meters alone would not account for the big drop in bad readings. Only about 15 percent of the county’s water meters are new.

And, apparently, the water department bought water meters that had a water intrusion problem on some units. Which is to say, DeKalb bought water meters that weren’t waterproof.

The fellow from the company told the crowd that the meters failed in the customer’s failure, and that they had discovered some problems mere hours before the meeting, which prompted groans from everyone.

People demanded more staffing for the complaints department, but the staffing level alone may not be the problem — customer service orientation may be the problem. The county has adjusted roughly 3000 bills in nine months. That’s about 10 a day. Five staffers should be able to manage that … assuming that most people who come in with an outrageous bill get an adjustment.

If the adjustment rate is something like one out of every five bills — which is what it sounds like from the crowd tonight — then every staffer is handling 10 angry customers a day in the office, minimum. That still sounds achievable.

But the water department handles about 32,000 calls a month right now. That works out to about 1500 calls every working day. All of those calls aren’t about crazy water bills, of course. But how many are falling through the cracks?

The county’s water usage overall appears on first glance to be steady over time, which is to be expected. Industrial production has fallen a bit, while population has been fairly flat for a decade. Marginal population increase appears to be offset by conservation. The county plans a $50 million expansion to the $153 million water treatment plant on Winters Chapel Road … but I’m not convinced we need it right now at projected demand.

I’m interested in matching customer water usage rates to the 150 million gallons a day of water treated for potability at the source. Roughly 15 percent of the county’s water goes unmetered — that’s water pumped to county swimming pools and watering county lawns and in county bathrooms and filling county fire hydrants. Aside from that, if the water the county draws doesn’t match the water the county bills for, something fundamental has happened with water production. The county measures use at homes, but it’s not measuring well the flow through the pipes to get water to those homes. It would be good to add up all the customer usage figures, and the county’s usage and match that to what the county piped to a neighborhood.

So would knowing more than just how many bills are crazy, but how crazy, and for how long. Is the problem getting better or worse? How has the standard deviation changed? By that, I mean to ask how much more variability does the typical consumer see in their water bill every month and every year, and how has that changed over time?

I think this is the key to understanding the problem now. If most people see their bill fall within 25 percent up or down from the arithmetic mean, and 1 percent see bills double … and then that 1 percent became two percent, or that 25 percent variation became 50 percent up or down … we’d have a sense of how widespread the issue is and how many people are being affected.

I’ve asked the county for figures along these lines, but I suspect they can’t produce them, because the county’s accounting software doesn’t work that way. That, plainly, has to change.

The county provided a map showing where water had been cut off this year, along with people who had credit adjustments. There’s no pattern to it at all, which is telling. It’s an indication to me that the problem is systemic and has nothing to do with infrastructure.

I don’t think it’s the meters at all.

I’d need to see more data — particularly to see if the rate of complaints about bills spiking remained constant despite the introduction of new meters — but looking at the geographic spread I’m now focusing on the accounting software and the meter reading practices.

The idea that a $5000 water bill could ever, ever be sent out to a customer without a proactive phone call first speaks to the accounting problem in finance. That kind of bill needs to be treated like the county breaking someone’s leg. Because it costs about the same.

I think the idea of crediting people for future usage — if not simply offering refunds for crazy bills — has merit. I’d like to know what that would cost. I also think politicizing this problem is a terrible mistake.

The management failure here, ultimately, is at the top. People don’t get this pissed off overnight. That was a packed room, and that room never gets packed. Tonight was a signal for a lot of things that went beyond big water bills. A woman told me she planned to move soon, simply because the government was too screwed up to deal with.

Trust has been broken. It’s going to take time and hard work to rebuild.

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George ChidiBurke BrennanbethebalanceDave Bearse Recent comment authors
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Dave Bearse
Dave Bearse

George, I stopped reading a quarter way into the post. This has been going on for years. I’ve no doubt tens of thousands of people have paid hundreds and hundreds of dollars to DeKalb County government incompetence. A few years ago our HOA’s small irrigation system didn’t have water available in early winter. It required a dozen calls spread over three days to speak to anyone. I explained that the HOA meter was located adjacent to the drive of a house in foreclosure/short sale. I was advised to get a plumber. It cost $75 to learn the water was turned… Read more »

bethebalance
bethebalance

there was a shift in the billing system in august, and i also had a random county employee check my meter a couple of weeks ago. the weird thing abt that was that i didn’t see him check anybody else on the block at all. so my best guess is that the bad new meters and bad meter reading practices have resulted in inconsistent adjusted readings to be reported to the new billing system, which doesn’t have any mechanism to filter information or create alerts. so, adjusted readings could reflect perhaps years of faulty metering and meter reading practices in… Read more »

Dave Bearse
Dave Bearse

As far as I’m concerned, any water used more than two billing cycles ago and not billed is revenue lost.

It’s not like W&S hasn’t soaked, pun intended, thousands of its customers for hundreds of dollars each. The HOA hasn’t had a high water bill since the turn back on, BTW. W&S incompetence stole $300 from our HOA—there was more than one $200 bill—in addition to $75 for the plumber that proved their incompetence.

Burke Brennan
Burke Brennan

George, DeKalb has replaced 70,000 meters with the new digital ones since 2010, a little more than a third of the 190,000 total. I believe your 15% refers to the number of new meters with transmitters, which is close enough. As you have accurately described, it’s not just a “new meter problem” although some issues can be ascribed to manufacturer defects. Those are some of the easiest to solve however. Bad meter, replace meter, adjust bill, problem solved, right? The reality is that we have several other factors in play at the same time which include the rate increases over… Read more »