By John Schaffner

Atlanta city officials are promising angry Buckhead water customers they will be the first to receive new equipment that the city says will provide more accurate readings of water use.

More than 100 residents attended a meeting Nov. 13 at the Northside Methodist Church in Buckhead to protest months of excessively high water bills. Residents took the microphone one by one and most politely, but forcefully, told city officials of their problems with water bills that have spiked from tens or hundreds of dollars early in the year to thousands and tens of thousands of dollars in the past few months.

They complained that even though they had formally disputed these bills, they were being told to pay for at least half of them. Residents are charged late fees when they don’t pay their water bills and are threatened with having their water disconnected.

Interim Commissioner of the Department of Watershed Management Dwight Wright reminded the angry home and business owners that this new DWM management had only been on the job for eight weeks, had already made many changes in the way the department is being run and asked to be given time to work out the problems.

“We have a lot of problems to correct in the department that were created over the past eight years,” Wright said. “There is a culture that has been cultivated over eight years in Watershed Management and we are not going to be able to change it in two days or eight weeks or maybe not two years, but we are working on it.”

Wright and Aman were joined at the meeting with DWM CFO Jim Beard to answer questions.

One point the three made more than once was “There is a new sheriff in town,” and they intend to clear up the problems.

Buckhead resident Bill Lucas, who has been acting as a go-between with homeowners and city officials for the past several months, told the audience they can be upset and agitated, but asked that they be respectful.

“We are not here to lynch City Hall. We are here to get our problems solved,” he said.

Lucas said there were probably 100 people at the Saturday morning meeting at a Buckhead church. “Probably 1,000-plus more have water problems. It doesn’t matter if it is one person, or hundreds or thousands. Everybody needs to have their problem fixed.”

Lucas, who said he feels like an expert on water meters after months of studying them, said he does not place all the problems on those water meters. “I believe there are other issues are far beyond meters,” he said.

Helping Lucas with the meeting was Kristy Gillmann, president of the Peachtree Hills Civic Association, who has been trying to work with DWM for the past few years to correct billing and water meter problems.

Aman told the group “you always are going to have some problems in a system of 140,000-plus meters. Our job is to fix those as quickly as possible and provide as responsible customer service as possible.”

Bernard Tanner said he didn’t think anyone was at the meeting because the lid didn’t fit properly on his or her water meter. He was there because he has lived in his home for eight years and his water bills in the past few months have increased “80 times over what they used to be,” he said. He said nothing has changed in his household over that time—no pool or lawn watering.

“How are we going to resolve these issues and go back 12 or 15 months or whatever and refund these people all this money they have overpaid?” he asked.

Gillmann said she understands the rates have increased in the past year to pay for the sewer projects. “That is not the problem,” she said.

Gary Campbell said he and his wife flush their toilets now once a day and collect the water in buckets when they take showers and use it to flush the toilets. His bills now range from $200 to $600 a month. He said he is logging his usage.

“Two people doing the way we are doing – we sometimes are using over 2,000 gallons of water a day. That cannot possible be,” he said.

“This is exactly why we need these data locking heads on the meters,” Aman told the group. The data locking meter heads are a new technology which promises more accurate data collection from the water meters. The city has has determined to test their use and Aman said some meters are on order.

“We cannot do it citywide because of the cost of doing 140,000 meters,” Aman told the group. “But it is very clear that everybody in this room—by virtue that you came out today—is a candidate for that to happen.”As soon as we get those data locking heads in, we will begin by installing them first on the houses of the people who are here today.”