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Audit Blames Water Bill Inaccuracies in DeKalb County, Ga., on Flawed Technology, Oversight

Though the audit contains no surprises about the causes of billing inaccuracies, it does highlight foundational challenges: inadequate customer service, failing technology, reliance on temporary workers, poorly trained employees, disjointed management and human error.

by Mark Niesse, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution / July 27, 2017
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(TNS) -- DeKalb County’s inability to fix its chronic problems with water billing is due, in part, to a muddled management structure and an outdated reliance on paper instead of technology, according to a highly anticipated outside audit.

The 127-page draft audit, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday through an open records request, includes 22 recommendations to address longstanding issues that have led to extreme bills for many county residents.

Though the audit contains no surprises about the causes of billing inaccuracies, it does highlight foundational challenges: inadequate customer service, failing technology, reliance on temporary workers, poorly trained employees, disjointed management and human error.

And, in a suggestion sure to give county leaders pause, the audit says unifying water billing into one department — instead of having different functions handled by separate county departments that operate in “silos” — would improve accountability.

“Aging infrastructure, manual processes, limited use of technology and lack of proactive staff development has limited the county’s ability to accurately bill residents for water consumption,” according to the audit. “There is no single issue that created the problem and no single recommendation that will solve the problem. The county should review, consider and implement numerous recommendations.”

The $275,000 audit was conducted by financial services firm KPMG.

Among the problems cited: About 62,000 meters, or one-third of those used in DeKalb, are more than 15 years old and should be replaced, the audit says.

DeKalb CEO Mike Thurmond, who took office in January, has already started plans to replace 102,000 old and potentially defective water meters, an effort that could take more than three years. The county also recently approved a $5 million contract to install updated billing software.

“The draft KPMG audit report on water billing issues in DeKalb County confirms the problems we have identified and are working to correct including accurate water bills, better customer service, improved processes, replaced meters, new technology and restored trust in the system,” Thurmond said in a statement. “We are closely reviewing the draft report and will utilize any new information contained in the audit.”

The audit also raises questions about DeKalb’s mystifying reliance on paper only when accounts are first set up and for work orders. Residents and businesses fill out applications that staff members later input into the computer system, introducing more opportunity for errors.

Thurmond didn’t comment on the recommendation to consolidate departments.

The audit says one leader should be held accountable for the system. Currently, water billing is handled by a unit of the Finance Department, while water meter maintenance and reading is overseen by the Department of Watershed Management.

“The two functions reside in differing departments reporting to differing department directors, which does not allow for a single person to be accountable and manage end-to-end water metering and billing processes,” according to the audit.

The audit, whose funding was approved by the DeKalb Board of Commissioners in February, isn’t finished. Members of the county’s Audit Oversight Committee and Chief Audit Executive John Greene will discuss it with KPMG on Friday, and then Thurmond’s administration has up to 60 days to provide a response.

Commissioner Kathie Gannon said she hopes the government uses the audit to make much-needed corrections.

“We want to see where the system broke down,” Gannon said. “We want to make sure that we do what we need to, to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Residents are most concerned that they’ll be hit with new charges while the county is struggling to repair its water billing system, said Ellen Buettner, a member of the Unbelievable DeKalb Water Bills group on Facebook.

The county is still verifying charges for 27,000 customers whose bills have been withheld since last fall because of questions about their accuracy. The county previously mailed 8,000 bills that were recently validated.

Many people fear that when they finally receive their old bills, they’ll face expensive charges covering multiple billing cycles, Buettner said.

“The first thing they have to do is fix that. You can’t hold onto these bills for months on end with no information and then expect people to pay a huge lump sum within 15 days,” she said. “In order for an audit report to do any good, you have to take action.”

The audit mentions the issue with withheld bills and recommends the county institute procedures for releasing estimated bills when necessary.

©2017 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.