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Chatham Co. residents continue to deal with high water bills

Published: Nov. 22, 2021 at 10:17 AM EST
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Several residents in unincorporated Chatham County have seen their water rates double in the past year and a half.

As it turns out, they’re affected by a deal made by the Chatham County Commission back in 2015 when the commission sold all the county’s public water lines to the highest bidder - a private company.

Marylyn Carey is retired and diligent about conserving water.

“It doesn’t run until it gets full,” she said, as she opened her dishwasher.

Her methods for saving water over the years have not stopped her bill from significantly rising over the past three years.

As she explained, her June bill is particularly troublesome.

“2019, $92.41, 2020, $111.93 and June of this year 2021, it was $207.50.”

In five years, her bi-monthly bill with Water Utility Management is four times higher than it once was. Yet, not much at home has changed, she said.

When she’s called the company for an explanation, “I was told unless I could prove there was a leak they were responsible for - there wasn’t anything they could do,” she said.

About a mile away in the Lakeside Park subdivision off LaRoche Avenue, Melanie Holland also has called about her high water bill.

“It’s the same answer every time you call. Either you got a leak or it’s your irrigation,” Holland said.

She, too, has been working to get answers for months after seeing unexplained fluctuations in her bill. After a months-long investigation, WTOC Investigates received a copy of the water bids, contracts and the maps, which show the neighborhoods included in the sale to Water Utility Management. The maps include Holland, Carey and about 4,000 households in unincorporated Chatham County.

The county’s decision to put the system out for public bid had to do with the cost to maintain it.

“It was just not something we could maintain really,” explained Linda Cramer, Assistant Chatham County Manager. “So, it’s better when you get into a big system. You have more opportunity to spread out operating costs and hopefully that will get your rates to go down, so hopefully, we can call work toward that.”

Water Utility Management manages and maintains the water systems for 26,000 households.

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The rates have not gone down for the households sold by the county. Holland, who is one of those customers, saw her base water rate more than triple in one billing cycle from about $14 to $44, while Carey’s have nearly doubled to $44.

Water Utility Management declined an on-camera interview, but did send WTOC a prepared statement about the water rate increases.

It reads in part that the company, “inherited a significant amount of deferred maintenance” with the system it bought from Chatham County.

Public bid documents obtained by WTOC Investigates found the company paid nearly $7 million for the county water lines after it won the public bid. The company outbid Consolidated Utilities and the City of Savannah in 2015.

To further compound the issue, some the customers acquired by the company also are on the county sewage system, and the sewage rates have tripled during the same time frame the water rates have increased.

Water Utility Management has a contract to bill county sewage customers.

“I’ve just been paying it,” Holland said “I’ve been venting on Nextdoor App. And that’s where I found a whole lot of my neighbors also were also venting on the NextDoor App about the same thing. So that’s when I thought: Okay, something must not be right here.”

For Carey, it boils down to customer service and accountability.

“They’re the only game in town,” she said. “There is no other water company. I mean if my cable bill got out of whack. I could go to Dish, or whatever else is out there, Direct TV, but I don’t have an option when it comes to my water.”

And as we found, there is no regulatory agency in Georgia that she can complain to about the rising water rates, although there is one for electricity rates.

Water Utility Management did not provide specifics about how much higher the base water rates could climb.

WTOC Investigates asked Chatham County how it has spent the $7 million dollars it received from the water sale.

Most of the funds are still in the bank accruing interest, Cramer said. She said the county has used some of it to repair sewer lines, so those costs have not been passed on to customers.

Discussions are underway for how to spend the funds, such as to replace sewer lines or add fire hydrants in neighborhoods without them.

Our WTOC Investigates team has previously reported on the lack of fire hydrants in certain neighborhoods within unincorporated Chatham County. Almost all of those neighborhoods are serviced by Water Utility Management. Learn more about how the predicament impacts homeowners insurance and the ability to fight fires.

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