Atlanta water bills: City Council member says he 'wouldn't put up with' rejected appeals

Atlanta Watershed Management's appeals board is where you go when you feel you've been unfairly charged for water usage. But a months-long FOX 5 I-Team investigation shows not many people win their cases. 

After hearing the stories of two account holders, two Atlanta City Council members said the appeals board is the problem.

East Lake retiree Jeffrey Williams said out of nowhere back in the fall of 2022 outrageous water bills started pouring in. The grand total for his two-person household was $12,087.06.

Our calculations showed the amount of water the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management said they used in just four months added up to 3.8 years' worth of standard water usage. Williams called in a plumber who found no leak but rather a broken water meter.

"We turned on water at the front spigot. He went back to the meter to see if it was registering. And he said, ‘This thing is spinning out of control,’" he said. 

An Atlanta man loses water bill appeal but wins the support of the City Utilities Committee.

An Atlanta contractor owned an empty East Lake lot. Jeff Raw of Revive Construction Group was a few months from building, but he went ahead and ordered a water meter put on the streetside. Mind you, even the city's own notes show that the line was not connected to the property.

"It was not tied into anything on the property," Raw said. 

But outrageously high water bills flooded in, reaching nearly $30,000. Eventually, a home was built on the land. When connected to the city's water meter in February 2023, the bills sunk down to $13.  

Both account holders asked DWM to adjust their bills. Both were told no. Both appealed to the Water and Sewer Appeals Board, and both lost.

The newly appointed Atlanta Utilities Committee chairman Antonio Lewis, said, "The fix is delete their bill. 

Atlanta City Council member Howard Shook, the committee's vice chair, said he understands the frustration after hearing about the case of phantom water flow from a home with no water line.

"I would believe that there was another explanation that wouldn't have been uncovered yet," Shook said.

Even in the other case where a plumber said on the record that the broken water meter was the reason for the appearance of high water usage, well, the utility committee's vice chair just can't side with the appeals board here either.

"I don't know why that one went that way because I am aware of cases that found in favor of the ratepayer when the appropriate plumber's documentation was presented," Shook, who represents Buckhead, said. "So I don't know why said documentation might be accepted in one place but poo-pooed in another."

So how did the appeals board, with members who have been repeatedly appointed, come to these conclusions? Both men said there is a fundamental problem at work.

"This has to be a training issue," Lewis said, who represents the southeast side of Atlanta. "You look at the training that our board members are getting. 

But that's in the hands of elected officials; meantime, a FOX 5 I-Team investigation looked at 15 months' worth of appeals board votes. We found the Atlanta Water and Sewer Appeals Board denied 78% of those appeals.

The two top members of the City's Utilities Committee recommend you start with your City Council person before you start the appeals process.

"The video I saw, Council member Liliana Bakhtiari was there in support of the constituent," Lewis said of Bakhtiari, who represents the East Lake community. 

With Raw's nearly-$30,000 bill, Bakhtiari got his case in front of a higher-up at DWM. Soon after, an email arrived telling the contractor he only owed around $219, and that the leak was, in fact, the utility's fault. But that was eventually overruled.

The next step is the appeals board. But even a ‘no’ there is not the end of the line.

"Ya know, the water sewer appeals board is not the judge, jury and executioner," Shook said. "There is another step. It's costly. It's a pain in the butt, and that is to go to superior court. Which, if I was either one of them, I would do. In a heartbeat. I mean, I wouldn't put up with it."