NAACP challenges Macon water bills

The Macon branch of the NAACP is asking the Macon Water Authority to investigate its water meters and water lines after complaints from residents who say their water bills doubled or tripled without an increase in usage.

Al Tillman, president of the Macon chapter, said he has been approached by about 15 people from across Bibb County with this problem during the past year. “It seems to be happening most in poor neighborhoods where people are living on assistance,” he said.

For example, Tillman said, one woman who has no washer or car saw her water bill increase from $40 to $80 in a month.

Macon Water Authority Director Tony Rojas said 15 complaints over the course of a year represents a tiny percentage of the authority’s 51,500 customers, and he said the authority is unaware of any widespread problems.

Tillman is asking residents who have seen unexplained spikes in their water bills to bring those bills to the NAACP office at 905 Main St. with their Social Security numbers marked out. He said he plans to gather these and speak to the Macon Water Authority board and Macon City Council about the trend he has observed.

“I think there are faulty meters,” he said. “And downtown we’ve seen these water mains deteriorate, and I’m worried residents are being billed for water lost like that.”

Karen Sutherland contacted Tillman on Thursday about her struggle over her water bills earlier this year. Authority bills show she was charged for a big spike in consumption in April: an increase from about 800 cubic feet to 3,500.

She said the authority replaced her meter, but she continued to be unable to get a reliable reading, so it started charging her about $10 more each successive month. Her average bill went from about $35 to a high of $85 until her husband, who works for a company that lays water and sewer lines for developments, was able to resolve the matter in late summer. She said she never received a satisfactory explanation of what had happened and feels she was cheated out of several hundred dollars.

Rojas said the authority replaces its meters at least every 10 years, more often than many other utilities. The authority spends about $100,000 a year for meter replacement, he said. Cities such as Atlanta have faced lawsuits over faulty meters, but Rojas said Atlanta’s problem is related to how its automated radio reading system works with the city’s billing software. The authority uses just a few radio readers, mostly with commercial properties and residential properties where the meter is hard to reach.

Rojas said the authority has an internal system to catch unusual meter readings and double-check them. The meter reading device itself will tell the meter reader to check again if the usage seems higher than usual, and authority billing employees also check for unusual readings before bills are sent out, he said.

In fact, of the 14,193 times that meters were re-read since the beginning of last December, 12,626 were due to the authority’s flagging changes in consumption internally, and 1,567 resulted from a customer complaint, according to records provided by the authority.

The authority will send letters to customers when increased usage indicates that they might have a leak on their property, Rojas said. “A lot of times it can be as simple as a running toilet,” he said. In the past 13 months, the authority reduced 1,459 bills when leaks were found, even though those leaks weren’t in the authority’s portion of the water lines, according to authority records.

Macon City Councilman James Timley said he thinks the problem is not with the meters but with the authority’s billing practices. Customers who pay late may receive late fees and, if late enough, an administrative fee. He said people have shown him bills with multiple late and administrative fees.

“It’s all an effort to confuse people so they can’t see the smoke and mirrors, and (the authority) is gouging Macon citizens,” Timley said. “I’ve never seen a bill double because it’s late. I’m thinking it’s illegal.”

Customers who use the minimum amount of water (which costs $12.50) and pay only after 30 days can see their bills double, because a late fee of $3 is charged after 25 days and an administrative fee of $15 is charged after 30 days. Rojas noted that the authority reduced the administrative fee by $5 in February -- after Tillman approached him with concerns about it -- to help customers coping with the recession.

Rojas said the authority has also adjusted its billing cycle to be sure customers who rely on government checks will receive that check early in the billing cycle.

Timley said he wants to arrange for someone from the authority to speak to council’s Engineering and Public Works Committee to explain the billing process. Billing policies should also be spelled out more clearly on the bills, he said.

Tillman said he wants to partner with the Macon Water Authority to better educate customers about how to understand their bills and how the rate increase process and late fees work.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.