Earlier this week, Janis Gardner sat outside the DeKalb County government office in downtown Decatur looking for answers. It was early in the morning, but she waited, alongside a dozen others, for the 10 a.m. Board of Commissioners meeting. 

Next to her were fellow members of the DeKalb Water Watch, a community group created with the purpose of bringing awareness and resources to affected residents like Gardner.

Back on Aug. 1, 2022, the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners announced that residents across the county would see a 6% increase in water and sewer bills. The hike, according to officials, would be used toward funding more than $2 billion in improvements to DeKalb’s water and sewer infrastructure. 

The increase is the first instance in seven years that the county moved to raise prices for customers. The news also came nearly a year after the county ended its long-standing moratorium, restricting the county’s Department of Watershed Management from disconnecting services due to nonpayment.

In a statement to Capital B Atlanta, the DeKalb DWM said they have just short of 70 accounts in ongoing disputes, and have disconnected 2,767 accounts since Feb. 8. Those accounts involved customers who have not made a payment in the last six billing cycles. 

With utility rates on the rise nationwide, Black citizens are increasingly facing the growing burden alongside other economic pressures like inflation. In the city of Atlanta, the Department of Watershed Management is in the process of a similar disconnection effort for more than 20,000 customers after ending a 12-year moratorium.

‘Where am I going to get $12,000 from?’

Gardner’s water issues started in 2021 after the Lithonia resident said she noticed her water bill was $6,000 despite living in an average sized, two-person household. Her first instinct was to reach out directly to the county, which she says had little answers.

“First, I complained. The more I complained, they said, ‘Well, do this and do that.’ I did everything they said.”

Gardner said she was told to replace her water pipes. After reaching out to a private plumber and replacing the pipes in her home twice in hopes that it would help regulate the bill, Gardner says the county did change the water meter at her home once, but nothing changed. 

She eventually caved in and agreed to do a payment plan.

When Gardner’s personal life derailed momentarily in 2022, that plan fell through. 

“My husband had a heart attack,” she said. “When everything happened, we notified the county and they said, ‘Well, you still have to pay.’”

Gardner ended up losing her job when her husband got sick and had to spend months in the hospital receiving care. Gardner stopped paying the water bill altogether.

When she received her latest water bill on April 5 from the DWM, the service provider notified her then that she had until May 5 to pay over $12,000 in backdated debt. 

“This man had a massive heart attack. Where am I going to get $12,000 from?”

As it now stands, Gardner says her bill is $16,000, with an imminent threat of disconnection for the $12,000 past due.

Lithonia resident Karim Aribot says his excessively high water bills date back to 2017. “When you call the [DWM] customer service, it’s like you’re talking to somebody who’s not willing to listen to you,” he says.

Lithonia resident and DeKalb Water Watch member Karim Aribot says he is a victim of DeKalb’s long-neglected infrastructure. When he first began receiving abnormally high water bills back in 2017, Aribot says he never imagined he would still be dealing with an excessive bill of $5,000 six years later.

“When you call the [DWM] customer service, it’s like you’re talking to somebody who’s not willing to listen to you,” he said. “They have poor customer service that needs to be addressed.”

Aribot, who lives in the Stonemill Manor subdivision, said that after he reached out to a private plumber who said there was no issue with the pipes in his home, he requested that the county come and replace the meter. He also replaced the entire main water line to his home from the meter to see if that would help, but the issue was never resolved.

“My bill kept climbing,” Aribot said. “When I asked for help from the county, they said my only option was to pay out of pocket.” 

Now, Aribot pays an additional $70 per month to settle the backdated debt on top of his current monthly bill for his household of four people. “With the payment plan, I was able to bring my bill down to $3,700,” he said.

What DeKalb County is saying

The department said it has been consistently communicating the account dispute process with affected residents.

“In preparation for disconnection, DeKalb County established extended installment plan incentives, up to seven years,” the statement said. “Individual case managers communicated the detailed dispute process, based upon the nature of the dispute, to each customer.”

In addition, DeKalb County says it created a dedicated call center for installment plan requests, sent three letters to customers with past-due balances, and conducted an outbound phone campaign for customers who had balances of $10,000 or more. 

The county also utilized door hangers for 6,000 unresponsive residents and did a preemptive meter check for 100 customers with the highest balances, finding no issues. 

County officials said the department has dedicated over $8.5 million to multiple customer assistance programs that aid in payment assistance like Partnership for Community Action, Urban League of Greater Atlanta, DeKalb Cares (DeKalb County Community Development Department) and the Tenant-Landlord Assistance Coalition

Other federal and state resources like the Low Income Housing Water Assistance Program and The Salvation Army’s Project Share Program are available to eligible residents. 

Affected customers can also contact the DWM directly to dispute their bill at (404) 371-3000. To set up installment plans, customers should call (404) 378-4475, or email dekalbwaterservice@dekalbcountyga.gov

‘It seems especially cruel’

DeKalb Water Watch member Stanley Iriele also stood before the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, urging officials to find a more helpful form of adjusting excessive bills that he said are just unpayable in a reasonable timeline. 

The Decatur native told Capital B Atlanta that when he took over his parent’s property when his mother passed away in 2018, no one had lived in the home for three years. By the time he received a bill from the DWM, Iriele said it had accumulated to more than $30,000. 

“I’m not even asking that the entire debt be canceled,” Iriele said. “That just seems unreasonable. It seems unkind, it seems especially cruel.”

As for Gardner, her biggest hope is that longtime residents, like herself, receive support from the county she has been supporting for nearly five decades.

“This is home. So I’m going back home and asking for help,” she said. “I’m not going outside of my county. I’ve lived in the same county for 49 years. I’ve been paying taxes. My kids went to school here. I have supported DeKalb County since I lived here. So now it’s like, what?”

Sydney Sims is the community engagement reporter for Capital B Atlanta. Twitter @bySydneySims