DeKalb residents could see water bills double

Source
AJC.com
By Megan Matteucci

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A DeKalb County family’s water and sewer bill could increase 110 percent from 2009 to 2014 — and even more if the state declares a drought.

The upgrades are needed to help pay for $1.79 billion in capital improvements to DeKalb’s water system, Watershed Management director Francis Kung’u said.

“Our water and sewer infrastructure is aging,” Kung’u told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday. “If we don’t do this, it will continue to degrade. We will get more breaks and won’t have enough capacity of wastewater treatment. We won’t be able to support growth of the county.”

The county is proposing to raise water and sewer rates 16 percent each year through fiscal year 2014.

The County Commission already approved a 16 percent rate increase for fiscal years 2009 and 2010, but is now looking at the additional increases to cover the plant repairs.

For a family that uses 4,000-20,000 gallons a month, it means an increase of 110 percent in their bill. The maximum bimonthly bill that was $165 in 2009 would be $347 in 2014.

But some county commissioners fear that may be too much for some residents in DeKalb, where 10.4 percent are unemployed and 68 percent of students in the school system qualify for free or reduced meals.

“When you look at the proposed rate increases, it’s got me thinking about reality,” Commissioner Lee May said. “Regardless if you call it a tax or a fee, the realization is that it comes out of everyone’s pocket.”

A vote will likely not be taken until next month at the earliest, Commissioner Larry Johnson said.

The commission is waiting for more information on the water department’s staffing and budget before agreeing to approve the rates. Ninety of the department’s employees are leaving at the end of the month through an early retirement program, but the department wants to fill 70 of those positions.

Those workers are needed for daily water main breaks and other repair work, said Ted Rhinehart, deputy chief operating officer of infrastructure.

“Those are the workers who do the day-to-day functions,” he said. “It’s so we don’t make a bad situation worse. We know we have a lot of pipes to repair.”

That repair list could get much worse if the county doesn’t upgrade the water system, Kung’u said.

The $1.79 billion covers 83 different projects, including expanding the county’s two wastewater plants and adding more clean storage wells at the county’s one drinking water plant. DeKalb also must fund 48 percent of all upgrades to Atlanta’s R.M. Clayton Wastewater Treatment Plant, which the county shares with the city, Kung’u said.

DeKalb plans to issue $350 million in bonds this year, $733 million in fiscal year 2012 and $277 million in fiscal year 2014.

In addition to the water system upgrades, the increased rates are also needed to help offset a drop in revenue from mandatory water restrictions, Kung’u said.

In 2009, the drought restrictions caused DeKalb water use to drop about 7.5 percent, which resulted in a $28.3 million loss. The county expects to lose about $34.3 million this year because of the water restrictions.

To help prevent that problem in future years, the water department is proposing to raise rates even more if the state declares a drought. Kung’u is asking commissioners to add on a 5 percent increase if the governor declares a Level 2 drought, a 10 percent increase for a Level 3 drought and a 15 percent increase for a Level 4 drought.

“Over the next several years, everybody else will be adjusting rates,” Kung’u said. “But for now, we are still below average in the metro region.”

That region average includes the city of Atlanta, which has water rates that are about double the surrounding counties because of its sewer project, Kung’u said.

Atlanta has approved a 56 percent increase from 2008-2012. The rates are supposed to go up about 12 percent each year until June 2012. The city is also considering adding a stormwater fee, which could be as high as $120 a year for some homes.

Fulton approved a 15 percent water hike in May 2008 and has no plans to raise rates, according to Public Works Director Angela Parker.

Cobb is expected to reapprove water and sewer increases in November. Starting in January, water rates will go up 8 percent, and sewer rates will increase 4 percent.

Gwinnett County passed a resolution last year establishing water and sewer rate increases each January through 2015. Customers began paying $4.11 per 1,000 gallons of water this year, up 25 cents from 2009. The rate goes up to $4.38 in 2011. The same is true for sewer service. Gwinnett customers now pay $5.38 per 1,000 gallons, up 47 cents from last year. The rate rises to $5.89 at the first of next year.

Clayton County has no plans to raise water rates. In August 2009, it raised water rates by 6 percent for residents who use more than 3,000 gallons a month, said Clayton County Water Authority spokeswoman Suzanne Brown.

Cherokee County does not anticipate a rate increase, but the Woodstock City Council is considering raising rates as much as 13 percent.

Staff writers Jeffry Scott, Christopher Quinn, Janel Davis and Patrick Fox contributed to this article.

Water usage

DeKalb customers who use 0-4,000 gallons a month

Number of customers: 51,749

Percent of total customers: 32 percent

2010 bimonthly bill: $46

2012 bimonthly bill: $62

2014 bimonthly bill: $83

DeKalb customers who use 4,001-20,000 gallons a month

Number of customers: 100,723

Percent of total customers: 62 percent

2010 bimonthly bill: $192

2012 bimonthly bill: $258

2014 bimonthly bill: $347

*Bill amount is the maximum

Current average monthly water and sewer bill for a customer who uses 6,000 gallons a month

DeKalb: $51

Clayton: $53

Cobb: $54

Fulton: $56

Gwinnett: $60

Cherokee: $61

City of Atlanta: $121

Source: DeKalb County Watershed Management Department

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