Atlanta water bills: $12K water bill now in hands of Atlanta judge

An Atlanta judge said a water bill dispute case was the first he’d seen residents actually challenging in court an Atlanta Department of Watershed Management decision.

An East Lake couple lodged a dispute with the Atlanta Water and Sewer Appeals board over a more than $12,000 water bill. It was denied. They then took the unusual step of taking DWM to court, and served as their own attorney. They learned this: It’s an uphill battle. 

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The burden of proof is not the city’s to prove the bill is accurate. It’s the resident’s burden to show how the city is wrong – even when they believe the city’s equipment is broken.

Jeffrey Willams reminded the judge at the onset that this, to them, is a lot of money. 

"Twelve thousand dollars might not be a lot to some people, but we are both retired. That's a ton of money to us."

Fulton County Superior Court's Judge Robert McBurney agreed. 

"Unless your name is Spencer Strider or Acuna, $12,000 is a lot of money."

And that is why Mr. and Mrs. Williams decided to fight the City of Atlanta's refusal to adjust a bill that racked up more than $12,000 in just four short months.

"The plumber found we had no leaks," Williams told the I-Team at his home last August. He said he told this to the Atlanta Water and Sewer Appeals Board in June. And reminded them his home has no water hogs. 

"No pool. No Jacuzzi. No sprinkler system," he told us and them. 

He also made the same point recently to Judge McBurney, as well as saying that their plumber tested the city’s meter and called it defective.

"The plumber called me over and said, ‘Look this is not supposed to spin like that. And no wonder you have high water bills,’" he said during his unusual court hearing. 

But the appeals board only has four options for correcting a bill. A billing error happens when numbers are inputted incorrectly. A fee credit means the customer overpaid. A leak credit is a partial refund if a homeowner repairs a leak.  And finally, there's a meter leak.

Judge Robert McBurney said nothing, though, seems to cover a broken water meter.

"Let’s say that what the person who did the inspection from the department, what that person concluded was the meter was broken. It’s not leaking, but it’s not working correctly.
Which of these four (applies) or is that just too bad for the customer?"

City of Atlanta attorney Tracy Hatchett responded, "We have not had that situation to occur that you’re mentioning."

The judge interjected, "Until now."

Ms. Hatchett didn't let that pass. 

"It’s speculative," she said. 

She also said water meters shut down if they malfunction.

"The meter was inspected. And if the meter was defective, it would’ve been replaced."

It was after the bills normalized that the city inspected the water meter for leaks, one of the four categories where a refund is possible. DWM records show no leak was found. 

Mr. Williams said from his courtroom chair, "At the hearing it was asserted by Watershed Management that someone came out to our property and checked to see if there was a leak on the city side, but specifically said, the meter was not inspected."

The homeowner's plumber said the meter was malfunctioning, not leaking.

The Williamses had just moved back into the home after working abroad. The bills spiked when they opened their new water bill account.

"Look, the most reasonable explanation for all of this is you all moved in and something you do moving in caused a leak," the judge said. "You have a different explanation for this. The meter was not working properly. And I get that also."

Mr. Williams knowing the burden of proof is on the consumer not the utility said, "We would have had to have a giveaway, come get free water, seven days a week, to get to $12,000."

The city had another possible reason for spiking water bills. "On the record, it indicates to the board there were repairs being made to the property."

Ms. Hatchett said the family’s plumbing receipt and the appeals board's written transcript support that.

It reads, "…..there were repairs made at the property."

But this is a typo. The audio version with a city employee is clear.

"There weren’t repairs made at the property," Atlanta DWM expert James Bibbs told the appeals panel in June. 

And the family's receipt, Bibbs also said, just shows a plumber dropped by to check for a leak, not repairs.

The Williamses believe they have proven their case.  The city attorney says the burden of proof is not met.

"It’s up to the consumer to come in and prove why their bill should be adjusted. And they failed to do that, your Honor."

This is unlike a court case you may be more familiar with. The judge will consider the evidence from this hearing and make a decision at a later date.