Water bills still not right

LAWRENCEVILLE - Nearly a year since a billing snafu left nearly three out of four Gwinnettians with incorrect water bills, 20 percent of the county water department's bills are still incorrect.

But officials hope a recently completed efficiency study has the answers for the ailing system.

"We've made great headway," said Lynn Zieburtz, customer service manager for Gwinnett County Water Resources. "We aren't satisfied. We are doing this so we can provide the kind of service people desire.

With a bill-print expert on hand and an information technology project manager starting this week, Zieburtz said the final kinks could soon be worked out of the billing system, which became operational around Memorial Day.

But just as customers should begin seeing correct bills, they may also see their rates go up. This summer, customers who use more water than their typical winter-time consumption will see a boost in their rates.

That model, approved several years ago by commissioners, is intended to foster conservation, especially in a time of drought.

"We have to help our customers understand how serious the drought is," Zieburtz said. "This is going to impact people's water bills."

While phone calls to the county have dwindled to about 900 to 1,200 calls a day - up from the peak of 900 to 1,200 calls an hour at the beginning of the billing problems, Zieburtz and Assistant Water Resources Director Lynn Smarr said they know many of the county's 230,000 customers are dissatisfied.

"It is frustrating that folks have gotten incorrect bills, but the important thing now is we have an action plan," Smarr said. "The important thing is we're moving forward. We're impassioned about it."

Because the bills have taken a year to correct, Smarr said she expects it to take quite a while to restore customer faith in the system, which few have a choice about using.

"The problem doesn't matter to customers. All the customer wants to know is if that bill is reliable," she said. "I think we're going to have to prove it to them with constant reliable bills. ... We're ready to go down that road with them, and we are ready to build back that confidence with them."

For Water Resources Director Frank Stephens, the audit performed by the county's new Performance Analysis Division was a key step in ensuring the entire problem is addressed.

"One of the things we're about is operating like a business, (making) decisions based on facts. We're on a quest for objective information and part of this is to seek critique," he said. "If there are other things we can do better, we want to know. It's a culture we want to develop.

"Sometimes it's hard to see the picture when you're inside the frame, so you need outside eyes."