[Marxism] Shutting off the water in Atlanta

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Nov 3 11:04:43 MST 2004


NY Times, November 3, 2004
Atlanta Shutting Off Water as It Tries to Collect $35 Million Overdue
By ARIEL HART

ATLANTA, Nov. 2 - Dorothy Chandler is used to fielding calls at the 
Midtown Assistance Center from people who are looking for help on their 
gas or electric bill. But on Tuesday, as news spread that a quarter of 
the city's water customers faced shutoff, it was suddenly the water bill 
that prompted several panicked calls.

"It is a huge concern," Ms. Chandler said. "The calls that I've had 
today, the people are $600 behind, $800 behind. They're huge amounts, 
much more than we could possibly help with."

On the heels of hard-won water rate and sales tax increases to pay for 
$3 billion in sewer improvements, the Atlanta Department of Watershed 
Management has decided to rein in its debtors. On Thursday, two dozen 
workers began turning off the water of customers who were more than 30 
days delinquent, estimated to be about a quarter of the city's 134,000 
active accounts.

A spokeswoman for the department, Janet Ward, said that the delinquency 
period was nothing new but that strict enforcement was. Ms. Ward said 
that anyone who contested their bill would probably be able to keep 
their water on until the dispute was concluded. "We understand how 
important water is, and we will bend over backwards to work with people 
who should not have their water cut off," she said.

But she said the debt could not be ignored. "We have passed these 
incredible rate increases that took effect in January, and then the 
people voted overwhelmingly to pass a municipal rate increase of a 1 
percent sales tax," Ms. Ward said. In January, the City Council approved 
yearly rate increases until 2008, on a sliding scale that will 
eventually triple rates for the biggest water users.

"We're asking the people to step up to the plate, and they have done 
that,'' she said. "Now we need to make sure and make them understand 
that we are doing everything we can to keep their rates down and do the 
work that has to be done. Recovering money that is by rights ours and 
that is out there is one of the best ways to do that."

It is unclear how much of the $35 million that those customers owe will 
be recovered, but at least it will stop the bleeding, she said. The 
department will shut off about 400 to 500 delinquents a day until the 
backlog is eliminated.

The logic is little comfort to those who fear they will be cut off. 
Elaine Isles, 44, is an unemployed security guard who lives with her 
husband, Glenn, and their three sons, ages 17, 10 and 7, and their water 
bill is past due. Ms. Isles received assistance for last month, but 
carried a balance forward and now has the next month's bill as well. 
"Now I owe $238.34," Ms. Isles said. "I don't have a way to give them 
$238.34. I don't have any way to give them one dollar." The family has 
been trying to cut down, flushing the toilet less.

"They already knew people weren't going to be able to pay their water 
bill when they increased it,'' she said. "Then they threaten the people 
of Atlanta and say if you're 30 days past due we're going to cut your 
water off. I think it's ridiculous."

Reflecting an irony of the city's water politics, Ms. Isles and her 
family are the very people the increase was designed to help. The sewer 
system is notoriously broken in places, in heavy rains dumping sewage 
into the Chattahoochee River and backing up plumbing in neighborhoods 
like the Isleses'. A federal judge had threatened a moratorium on new 
sewer hookups if it was not fixed.

The plumbing backups have "been hard on me and my family," Ms. Isles 
said. "The plumber said it's not in our property but in the street. I 
called the city but the city doesn't do anything."

She would appreciate it being fixed, she said, but is unhappy that she 
should be told to pay so much. "How can they say that when I can't pay 
for it?'' she said. "I can't pay."

Many customers were caught off guard by the news, said Ms. Chandler of 
the assistance center, not only because enforcement had been lax but 
also because the utility just changed from a two-month billing cycle to 
once a month. "Also, a lot of landlords who previously did not charge 
tenants for water now are charging," she said. "That's a whole new thing."

Councilman C. T. Martin said elderly and low-income people had been 
severely affected by the rate increase, which began in January. Mr. 
Martin had a colleague propose a resolution for him on Monday night that 
would protect those groups from immediate shutoffs.

"It's going to cause some people to have to move out of the city," Mr. 
Martin said. "It's just kind of the way the whole thing was done. There 
hadn't been adequate notification and education."

The water department is beginning a notification program with phone 
calls and bill inserts, Ms. Ward said. She said they would start cutoffs 
with "the worst of the worst."

"They're the ones who've owed the most, and they've owed it the longest 
time," Ms. Ward said. That includes people who are anywhere from 60 or 
90 days overdue to years, she said.

"I've seen some numbers, in the thousands of dollars, $8,000, $9,000 for 
individual residential accounts," she said. "These are people who have 
never paid a bill, or some people who move or something and we don't 
catch up with them."

For now, that is what people like Irene Gorman, 42, are counting on. Ms. 
Gorman is a single mother of four and a pharmacy technician at a CVS 
store who lives in Vine City, a low-income neighborhood in central 
Atlanta. Ms. Gorman has been paying down a past due water bill at $80 a 
week. She has trimmed it to $282, but she is struggling to make the 
payments.

Ms. Gorman said she did not know what would happen if she could not pay 
and received a cutoff notice. "It's hard to pay my bills right now," she 
said. "The only way I make it is through the grace of God."
-- 

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