When the Atlanta City Council's Utilities Committee met Aug. 31, Rob Hunter, commissioner of the city's Department of Watershed Management, was conspicuously absent.
Hunter was expected to present a quarterly progress report on how his department was fulfilling the federal consent decree that's dictated the progress of the multibillion-dollar overhaul of the city's sewer system — and likely faced tough questions from Council members about spiking water bills. But Hunter was a no-show.
Observes councilman Howard Shook: "He picked a bad time to go on vacation."
A bad time, indeed. But Hunter should have more leisure time soon. This past Tuesday, under pressure from a frustrated Reed administration, the embattled Watershed chief met his Waterloo, announcing his resignation. His last day is this Friday.
The Mayor's office also announced that four of Hunter's six deputy commissioners also had resigned. At press time, the administration was still determining Watershed's interim chain of command until a new commissioner could be named.
City Hall-watchers had seen the deluge coming for a while now. Watershed Management has been under increased scrutiny since late July, when four security workers were fired for conspiring to skirt the city's procurement process by subdividing more than $2 million in purchase orders into smaller amounts that wouldn't have to be put out to bid. (Their supervisor also quit over the scandal.) Then, on Aug. 27, a sewer worker went missing and was later found dead, having fallen into a channel of raw sewage at R.M. Clayton Water Reclamation Plant in northwest Atlanta. Hunter told the press, "There is protection that is in place and it failed in this case."
On top of that tragedy, the department has been flooded — pun intended — in recent weeks with complaints about sudden, drastic and seemingly inexplicable increases in monthly residential water bills. All over the city, residents are reporting substantially higher water and sewer bills. The Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation has received complaints from city residents claiming their bills have quadrupled, a phenomenon that couldn't possibly be explained by the 12.5 percent rate increase that took effect at the beginning of July.
On Sept. 9 — the day CL hit the streets — the Council's Utilities and Finance committees were scheduled to meet jointly to discuss Watershed's many issues, including its procurement processes and customer complaints associated with billing. Shook, a member of the Utilities Committee for the entirety of his nine-year tenure on Council, told CL last week that he feared the meeting would deteriorate into a "catchall gripe session" about the department's myriad problems. Although, his office hasn't seen a sudden uptick in the number of complaints, Shook says there's been a "steady drumbeat of billing problems for two years."
Department spokesperson Janet Ward says they are hearing "a lot of complaints" about exorbitant bills, at least of late. But she says increased summer usage and more accurate meter readings could very well be responsible.
Atlanta's water rates are already among the highest in the nation, second only to Seattle. And that's not counting the 1-cent sales tax that was imposed to help fund the sewer project, which was initiated in 2002 and is one of the most ambitious — and necessary — public works projects in recent Atlanta history.
Rates are high in part because of a 1994 lawsuit filed by the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper that ended with a federal judge's strict order mandating a revamp of the city's ancient sewer system. Further confounding things, the Watershed Management Department recently wrapped up a three-year project to replace all of they city's residential water meters.
As Hunter makes his exit, he will likely be praised for his ability to bring the city into conformance with the consent decree, but faulted for not focusing enough attention on customer service. Among city departments, Watershed had become something of an island, with a stand-alone budget and less administration oversight. Reed's overhaul of the department is clearly intended to make it more accountable and responsive to taxpayers — an effort that could help repair the department's abysmal bond rating.
Ward says one of the reasons bills might suddenly be higher is that they're finally accurate. She explains that as meters get older, their mechanisms tend to slow. Therefore, until they were replaced, the meters would have accounted for — and customers would have been charged for — less water than was actually used. She also says weather could be a factor, and to some extent, customer expectations.
Atlanta is coming off the three hottest months of the year, she points out. "People don't realize that even if they don't think they're using more water, they are."
City officials also are looking into the possibility that there are technical problems within the billing system or problems with the new technology, which automatically transmits meter readings to Watershed Management trucks as the vehicles drive past the meters.
"It's hard to tell right now whether these [bill increases] are merely anecdotal or if there are widespread inaccuracies in the billing system," says Reese McCranie, Mayor Kasim Reed's deputy director of communications. "This is something the administration, the city and the Watershed Department take very seriously, and it's important that accuracy in billing is where it needs to be."
McCranie says that hiked-up bills can be contested by calling Watershed Management at 404-658-6500.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the city had laid off a number of non-executive staff in Watershed's billing and customer-service departments.
Wait did did you get the Christmas gifts or not yet? Writing about gun control…
Funny and interesting. Thanks.
"Stadium Love" - Metric
Ben Palmer is a funny dude. I'm saving up to buy his book someday.
Some call it poverty - others call it a simpler life.