DeKalb County admits it had to write off $158 million in uncollectable water and sewer bills in the past six years. That’s a huge number, but Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher said it took weeks to get another figure about the county’s water and sewer collections.
It began with a simple question to the spokesperson for CEO Michael Thurmond five weeks ago. We asked the same thing to Thurmond himself during an on-camera interview three weeks ago.
Our question: What is the current balance of uncollected water and sewer bills for DeKalb’s Department of Watershed Management? The long march was underway.
Atlanta’s Watershed Department generates hundreds of millions of dollars in sales every year. Residential and business customers buy water and sewer services and are supposed to pay for them. But some do not.
The number of who didn’t pay got higher during a 5-year moratorium that ended last Sept. 1, and COVID-19 complicated things as well.
So Belcher emailed Thurmond’s spokesperson on June 28: “Can you tell me the current balance of unpaid/uncollected bills?”
Some 35 days later, DeKalb finally sent some colorful pie charts. They reveal that the county has written off nearly $160 million in uncollectable water and sewer bills, but they don’t say how much the county was owed on June 28 -- the date of our request -- or as of Wednesday.
“Every time that issue comes up, we are told that we’re going to be getting that information. But I don’t think anybody (on the county commission) knows how much money is owed to DeKalb County by delinquent bills,” outgoing County Commissioner Jeff Rader told Channel 2 in a story last month.
In a July 14 interview with Channel 2, Thurmond said he can’t nail down the number we want.
- Nearly a year after moratorium ended, thousands of DeKalb water customers still haven’t paid
- DeKalb County to lift moratorium over unpaid water bills starting July 1
- DeKalb County extends water bill moratorium after people still receive massive bills
“Because it’s a dynamic process, we bill, we collect every day, so to say exactly what it is at this moment, I would have no way of knowing,” Thurmond said at the time.
We suspected otherwise, because Atlanta’s Watershed Department (which had uncollected bills of $121 million as of last week) regularly gives us its total of unpaid bills on short notice.
It usually takes a day or two -- never five weeks.
Turns out the CEO was wrong. His own chief financial officer offered us a very precise number, finally ending the 36-day hunt.
“$54,675,424,” said Dianne McNabb in an interview Belcher.
He reminded her that just weeks ago her boss had told us, “I would have no way of knowing.”
“I would say it’s a single point in time. Tomorrow the balance will be different,” she answered.
“But the CEO told me he couldn’t come up with the number. You did it just like that,” Belcher told McNabb.
“I wouldn’t say it was just like that. It took some compilation and reconciliation in order to do that,” McNabb said.
But do it she did.
McNabb also told Belcher the uncollected number (or accounts receivable, as the professionals say) was right at $54 million at the end of last year, so little has changed in calendar year 2022.
We know that about $19.3 million of the uncollected total is owed by a relatively small group of not quite 3,900 customers.
Thurmond has promised to start cutting off service to those customers if they don’t pay up or work out a payment plan by Sept. 1.
The county ended its water bill moratorium last September, but no one has lost service for nonpayment since then.
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