City to start turning off water service next year as unpaid bills total more than $125 million

ATLANTA — More than 16,000 Atlanta families face the possibility of losing water and sewer service early next year when the city begins cutting off people who haven’t paid their bills.

That doesn’t count apartment residents whose landlords may not have paid up.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher broke the story that the city was getting ready for a long-delayed crackdown.

As of the week before Thanksgiving, Atlanta’s uncollected water and sewer bills totaled just over $125 million -- far more than other metro water systems, such as Cobb and Gwinnett, which have far more customers.

City Council utilities Chairman Howard Shook says it is not a new problem.

“Watershed Management is a utility that by law is supposed to be run as a business, and no business is going to continue just hemorrhaging money,” Shook said. “It’s got to be done.”

The numbers confirm shook’s concern. About 52% of the city’s residential accounts are in arrears, with balances of over $300. More than 16,000 residences will be facing possible shutoffs.

City records show they owed more than $89 million as of mid-November. Commercial accounts owed another $13,615,536. Multi-family or apartments owed almost $23 million more.

That brings a citywide total of $125.5 million uncollected.

Shook told Belcher that cracking down on apartments is especially difficult.

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“If some of the shutoffs occur in apartment buildings, you know, I’ve been watching this for 20 years. I can predict that the media will go out there make the city look like Simon Lagree,” Shook said.

Former state Sen. Vincent Fort said there’s no excuse for the city having uncollected bills far greater than even larger systems in surrounding counties, but he worries about the effects on families.

“The city has to collect some of that money,” Fort said. “There are people because of the pandemic who are not going to be in a position to pay or pay quickly. But for those people who can pay, they should collect.”

Fort told Belcher that he’s skeptical about the city’s competence on the issue.

“City Hall got us into this ditch, and now we’re depending on them to get us out of the ditch?” Fort said.

The city declined to provide anyone to answer questions on camera but confirms that Watershed is ready to begin shutting off services for non-payment early next year.

We don’t know how much of the unpaid $125 million the city expects to collect and how much it expects to write off.

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