The source of an ongoing issue with incorrect water bills in DeKalb County, including some overcharging residents by thousands of dollars, has been narrowed down and is being permanently addressed, according to CEO Mike Thurmond.
The error comes down to a mathematical programming error with around 200 identified accounts where sometimes consumption numbers are multiplied by up to 100 times more than they should be, turning a $100 bill into a $10,000 bill, Thurmond explained to residents during an update May 23 at Rehoboth Baptist Church.
“This has been a systemic problem which stretches back years if not decades, but the good news is that I am confident that we have been able to identify the source of this embarrassing problem [...] and have understood it and are implementing strategies from preventing this occurring in the future,” Thurmond said.
However, outside the 200 problem-accounts identified, thousands of residents have reported sometimes astronomically high bills due to a combination of billing and meter errors along with customer service issues.
The county has committed to providing a high-quality water billing system through the New Day project, but that it will take between two and three years to retrofit, rebuild and implement a 21st century system, Thurmond said. This will include replacing old meters and upgrading computer systems.
The current 90-day plan is already working to reduce and eliminate inaccurate bills, improve customer service and begin the process of rebuilding trust, Thurmond said.
Through these efforts, he said the county has seen a number of successes including dropping the number of disputed bills 70 percent from November 2016 to April 2017, from 1,993 bills down to 621. He said call volume regarding bills has also dropped 55 percent.
In addition, 8,000 bills being held were released to customers and out of those, 50 percent have been paid already, Thurmond said. Customers with bills still being held will be receiving direct correspondence in the coming weeks.
In 2016, the former administration in the county made the decision to withhold some 37,000 bills while their accuracy was verified.
Some residents in attendance expressed gratitude that Thurmond and his administration were finally addressing the issue, but also shared ongoing frustrations with continuous high bills and the inability to resolve their issues.
“I have not received a bill since last November and each time I call I have been told at the end of the month I will get one and it got to a point I just did not bother calling anymore,” said Linda Dacey Caban, a resident of Decatur. “When I do get a bill, I am going to be hit with quite a bill — and how do you expect people to pay these monstrosity bills?”
Thurmond emphasized that no residents will be penalized for the county’s error. He said of the 8,000 held bills recently sent out, the average amount was around $55.
“I am the new guy, and many of the problems that frustrate you I did not create, but when you elected me, every problem existing in the system became my problem and no one other than me is ultimately responsible for this solution. And I have no doubt we will ultimately be successful in the resolution of it,” Thurmond said.
Beyond the 90 day fixes, long-term and permanent fixes are already underway as well.
Interim Deputy Director of Utility Customer Operations Antrameka Knight said part of the problem stemmed from the county ordering two identical meters, with one meant for one-gallon and the other for 100-gallons. Due to a lack of inventory controls, residents that should have received one kind of meter instead received the other, she said.
“We did not consider what would happen if the meters got mixed up and had no standard operating procedure,” Knight said. “Moving forward with our New Day project, it is important for us to take ownership of what we have created and to apologize.”
To rectify issues, Knight said they will are improving their inventory control system, standardizing training for setup of water meters, improving communications between county departments, and establishing policies and procedures to apply across the board.
The County currently has roughly 184,000 small water meters installed and of those 3,000 have been lost or misaligned; 40,000 have potential defects; 62,000 are outside of their 15-year lifecycle; and another 48,000 near the end of their life cycle, according to Reginald Wells, deputy director of operations with the watershed department.
“We are at risk with 55% of our small meters [...] of causing inaccurate water bills,” Wells said. “Our promise is to replace those 62,000 and others with the potential to fail. We will replace those meters, but also never get ourselves into this situation again by replacing a small chunk at a time going forward.”
To address ongoing customer service issues, Information Technology Director John Matelski said modernization efforts with their call center will begin June 2 with an overhaul to their automated interactive voice response system.
Improvements will include increasing inbound call capacity, decreasing queue times and tweaking calling trees to make it more user friendly for callers, he said.
This will provide improvements short-term while an entirely new system is implemented over the next 18 months, with a goal of launching at the end of 2018, Matelski said.
“You cannot fix a 15-year problem in one week, one week or even one year,” Thurmond said. “But we have a plan, and trust me, it will get done.”
Residents who still have concerns or would like to dispute a bill can call 404-371-3000 for assistance.