Feb 1, 2024 - News

Atlanta stares down nearly $200 million in delinquent water bills

Animated illustration of a droplet of water eroding the center of a stack of hundred dollar bills.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

City Hall is sitting on nearly $200 million in delinquent water bills — after a decade of lax collections enforcement and COVID.

Why it matters: Atlanta's overworked water system survives on a funding stream supported by customer bill payments.

  • And the longer a debt goes unpaid, an auditor told City Council members this week, the harder the amount is to collect.

Details: Starting in 2010, the city's Department of Watershed Management drastically scaled back shutting off unpaid water accounts, according to a new audit presented this week to city leaders.

  • Department officials were told by an unnamed former mayor in the previous decade to stop turning off taps for nonpayment because of a recession, the audit says.
  • The lack of enforcement nurtured a "culture" of not paying water bills, and an official moratorium on shutoffs at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic created a snowball effect. As of June 2023, the city had a deficit of $198 million from more than 54,000 accounts.
  • Active accounts are responsible for roughly two-thirds of the outstanding debt, the audit says.

Catch up quick: The pandemic moratorium lifted in 2021 but the city didn't restart shutoff enforcement until February 2023. On-time payments — and payments in full — have since increased, watershed commissioner Mikita Browning said.

In the weeds: Council member Alex Wan commented that the outstanding debt exceeded what the city collected in a special sales tax to overhaul the city's aged water and sewer infrastructure.

Of note: The city could pass legislation to write off some $65 million of debt from accounts considered impossible to collect because the property owners can't be located, the auditor said.

The other side: Browning said the agency was rolling out new technology and replacing aging meters to more accurately measure water usage.

  • "We shouldn't be judged by the amount of account shut-offs we have," deputy commissioner Jonathan Williams said. "We should be judged by the amount we collect. Our goal is not to shut off accounts — it's to collect the amount for water services provided."

Reality check: Clean and safe water is a U.N.-recognized human right, and cutting off access can put residents, especially seniors, at tremendous risk.

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