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Water Industry News

November 3, 2004

Atlanta Shutting Off Water as It Tries to Collect $35 Million Overdue

By ARIEL HART

ATLANTA, Nov. 2 - Dorothy Chandler is used to fielding calls at the Midtown Assistance Center from people who are looking for help on their gas or electric bill. But on Tuesday, as news spread that a quarter of the city's water customers faced shutoff, it was suddenly the water bill that prompted several panicked calls.

"It is a huge concern," Ms. Chandler said. "The calls that I've had today, the people are $600 behind, $800 behind. They're huge amounts, much more than we could possibly help with."

On the heels of hard-won water rate and sales tax increases to pay for $3 billion in sewer improvements, the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management has decided to rein in its debtors. On Thursday, two dozen workers began turning off the water of customers who were more than 30 days delinquent, estimated to be about a quarter of the city's 134,000 active accounts.

A spokeswoman for the department, Janet Ward, said that the delinquency period was nothing new but that strict enforcement was. Ms. Ward said that anyone who contested their bill would probably be able to keep their water on until the dispute was concluded. "We understand how important water is, and we will bend over backwards to work with people who should not have their water cut off," she said.

But she said the debt could not be ignored. "We have passed these incredible rate increases that took effect in January, and then the people voted overwhelmingly to pass a municipal rate increase of a 1 percent sales tax," Ms. Ward said. In January, the City Council approved yearly rate increases until 2008, on a sliding scale that will eventually triple rates for the biggest water users.

"We're asking the people to step up to the plate, and they have done that,'' she said. "Now we need to make sure and make them understand that we are doing everything we can to keep their rates down and do the work that has to be done. Recovering money that is by rights ours and that is out there is one of the best ways to do that."

It is unclear how much of the $35 million that those customers owe will be recovered, but at least it will stop the bleeding, she said. The department will shut off about 400 to 500 delinquents a day until the backlog is eliminated.

The logic is little comfort to those who fear they will be cut off. Elaine Isles, 44, is an unemployed security guard who lives with her husband, Glenn, and their three sons, ages 17, 10 and 7, and their water bill is past due. Ms. Isles received assistance for last month, but carried a balance forward and now has the next month's bill as well. "Now I owe $238.34," Ms. Isles said. "I don't have a way to give them $238.34. I don't have any way to give them one dollar." The family has been trying to cut down, flushing the toilet less.

"They already knew people weren't going to be able to pay their water bill when they increased it,'' she said. "Then they threaten the people of Atlanta and say if you're 30 days past due we're going to cut your water off. I think it's ridiculous."

Reflecting an irony of the city's water politics, Ms. Isles and her family are the very people the increase was designed to help. The sewer system is notoriously broken in places, in heavy rains dumping sewage into the Chattahoochee River and backing up plumbing in neighborhoods like the Isleses'. A federal judge had threatened a moratorium on new sewer hookups if it was not fixed.

The plumbing backups have "been hard on me and my family," Ms. Isles said. "The plumber said it's not in our property but in the street. I called the city but the city doesn't do anything."

She would appreciate it being fixed, she said, but is unhappy that she should be told to pay so much. "How can they say that when I can't pay for it?'' she said. "I can't pay."

Many customers were caught off guard by the news, said Ms. Chandler of the assistance center, not only because enforcement had been lax but also because the utility just changed from a two-month billing cycle to once a month. "Also, a lot of landlords who previously did not charge tenants for water now are charging," she said. "That's a whole new thing."

Councilman C. T. Martin said elderly and low-income people had been severely affected by the rate increase, which began in January. Mr. Martin had a colleague propose a resolution for him on Monday night that would protect those groups from immediate shutoffs.

"It's going to cause some people to have to move out of the city," Mr. Martin said. "It's just kind of the way the whole thing was done. There hadn't been adequate notification and education."

The water department is beginning a notification program with phone calls and bill inserts, Ms. Ward said. She said they would start cutoffs with "the worst of the worst."

"They're the ones who've owed the most, and they've owed it the longest time," Ms. Ward said. That includes people who are anywhere from 60 or 90 days overdue to years, she said.

"I've seen some numbers, in the thousands of dollars, $8,000, $9,000 for individual residential accounts," she said. "These are people who have never paid a bill, or some people who move or something and we don't catch up with them."

For now, that is what people like Irene Gorman, 42, are counting on. Ms. Gorman is a single mother of four and a pharmacy technician at a CVS store who lives in Vine City, a low-income neighborhood in central Atlanta. Ms. Gorman has been paying down a past due water bill at $80 a week. She has trimmed it to $282, but she is struggling to make the payments.

Ms. Gorman said she did not know what would happen if she could not pay and received a cutoff notice. "It's hard to pay my bills right now," she said. "The only way I make it is through the grace of God."