Auditor: ATL bungled water rate hike, service cutoffs
Hundreds of customers had their water service cut off last winter because the city of Atlanta mishandled retroactive billing for a rate hike, according to a new city audit.
Moreover, an estimated one in five customers were not told before their water was cut off, the auditor found. City code requires the Department of Watershed Management to give notice before discontinuing service.
Water commissioner Robert Hunter disputed the findings. “No customers were shut off due to back bill posting,” he said in a letter attached to the audit.
The 27 percent rate hike took effect in July 2008 but was not applied to customers’ accounts until Aug. 1. To recapture $7 million in lost revenue, the city tacked the July charges onto customers’ December bills with little explanation.
The back-billed adjustments made it appear that some customers’ accounts were overdue when they were not, City Auditor Leslie Ward said. The city typically turns off the water for residential customers with a bill of $50 or more that is overdue by at least 30 days.
The city cut off about 20,000 water accounts between December 2008 and February 2009. The audit team estimated that 1.7 percent were cut off because the back-billed adjustments were regarded in error as overdue balances.
The water department also improperly charged nearly 40,000 customers a penalty for failing to pay the back-billed amounts promptly, the audit found. Those penalties were later reversed.
Delinquent customers are supposed to be notified by an Interactive Voice Response system, but water department staffers told the auditor they it was turned off in November because it wasn’t working properly.
The auditor called for refunds for customers who were wrongly billed shutoff charges, as well as other procedural changes. Hunter challenged each of the auditor’s key recommendations and said no refunds are warranted.
The City Council requested the audit after customers complained they were cut off, some without notice, even though they had paid their bills. The council’s Utilities Committee is expected to discuss the audit Tuesday.