Water Industry News

United Water did better job than city in sewer bill collection
 Atlanta's internal audit says

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta's Watershed Management Department has done a worse job collecting money from its customers than the private contractor fired last year for poor performance, an internal audit has found.

The revelation, in an audit report released Tuesday, comes at a time when ratepayers are paying more for water and sewer services.

The report, released by the city's internal auditor, said the collection rate dropped steadily after Atlanta took back the water system from United Water Services Unlimited Atlanta in April 2003. Mayor Shirley Franklin and the City Council severed Atlanta's contract with United Water in part because the company was collecting less money for the city than expected.

As of August, the end of the period studied, the city had failed to collect $81.3 million, an increase of $26.6 million over the amount that was past due when United Water left town.It's unclear whether having the additional money would have resulted in smaller water and sewer rate increases.

"The department's collections of water and sewer bills have suffered since the city resumed this function primarily because the collection efforts have not begun quickly enough to be effective," said Leslie Ward, the Atlanta internal auditor.

The average collection rate documented by the audit was 91.7 percent. United Water was asked to maintain a 98.5 percent collection rate. Had the city reached that goal itself, it would have taken in an additional $22 million over the 16-month audit period.

The city's Watershed Management commissioner concurred with the findings and said his department has already implemented many recommendations in the audit. Commissioner Rob Hunter said the city fell behind on collections in part because his department lacked enough employees to do the work.

About a quarter of Atlanta's 148,500 water customers routinely fail to pay their bills on time, Hunter said, and the department is getting tough on them.

"Last month, we either shut off or plugged over 2,000 accounts," Hunter said. "That's approximately three times the average amount done during the period of the audit."

The city shuts off water at the meter when customers don't pay. Some people have learned how to turn their water back on, so the city plugs their meter.

Hunter said the city also instituted monthly billing in September, a change that he said would make it easier for customers to budget for their payments.

He said his department asked for more employees in next year's budget, and he said he plans to have as many as 40 employees assigned to turn off the water of delinquent customers by year's end. The department had four to six people assigned to the task immediately after taking back the water operations, he said.

"I've been given full authority by the mayor to do whatever I need to do to solve the problem," Hunter said. "It takes awhile to turn around the ocean liner."