By John Schaffner

Rob Hunter, commissioner of Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management for the past six years, says one of the biggest challenges to his department is customer service.

Hunter, who announced he will continue to head up the city’s water and sewer operations under the administration of new Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, told the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods that he came into a system “that is not focused on productivity and service.

“The challenge,” he said, “is how to fix that culture.”

Hunter was responding to a question by Kristy Gillmann, president of the Peachtree Hills Civic Association, who dealt extensively with Hunter’s department last year about excessively high water bills due to faulty meter readings.

Gillmann spearheaded a campaign to gather Buckhead residents’ reactions to the department’s response to the complaints. Hunter and his staff promised reforms to correct the customer service problems.

Appearing before the council of neighborhoods on Feb.11 to give a Department of Watershed Management update and to discuss flooding in the Buckhead area last year, Hunter said people “mean different things when they talk about customer service.

“You can fix customer interface, but you have to decide how to provide the underlying service. Utility service takes up most of our efforts,” he told a group of about 20 representatives of Buckhead neighborhoods.

He indicated the underlying problem is fixing the culture that has existed in the department.

Hunter told the group that his department has faced a lot of challenges in the past, including court-mandated fixes of the city’s outdated and failing water and sewer systems and a tight operating budget.

And, he said his department served more than just residents of the city of Atlanta. “We are a regional wastewater and regional drinking water utility,” he said.

Hunter said the department’s budget of $543 million is one-third of the city’s budget.

The budget for 2009-2010 went up about 1 percent, he said, while the operational part of the budget — the part used for services —actually went down by 19 percent

The largest increase in the budget, he said, was for the debt service to pay for the bonds and project work involved in the water and sewer systems overhauls.

The commissioner said water and sewer revenues have been adversely affected in past years by the drought and empty houses caused by the downturn in the economy. He said the department is down about 6 percent on water and sewer fee revenues and down about 20 percent in sales tax revenues. After an uptick in January, the sales tax revenues are off about 16 percent over last year, he said.

Over the next two years, the department will raising its water and sewer rates. The increase will be 12.5 percent in the first year and 12 percent in the second year. Hunter said he is working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to try to change the system to tie rate increases to household incomes as well as water usage.