Mom on a mission

Facebook page results in community activism 

Mom on a mission

For months Star McKenzie, a lifetime DeKalb County resident, wife and mother of two, watched as her household water bills continued to increase. What started out as a way to connect with neighbors and vent about high water bills quickly ballooned into something she said she didn’t expect. 

McKenzie created the Facebook group, Unbelievable DeKalb Water Bills, with hopes of seeing if any of her neighbors were experiencing some of the same issues. In the months that followed, McKenzie’s group grew from just a few members to more than 2,000 as of Nov. 28.

Some members include DeKalb County commissioners Nancy Jester and Jeff Rader as well as DeKalb County government officials. 

DeKalb County’s Star McKenzie created the Facebook group Unbelievable DeKalb Water Bills in January of this year.
DeKalb County’s Star McKenzie created the Facebook group Unbelievable DeKalb Water Bills in January of this year.

“I started to realize this wasn’t just an isolated thing. It started like the old school days. I really just thought it would be for our small neighborhood so we could compare and reference our bills,” McKenzie said. “It just spread organically. It was a really slow grow and then we got media coverage and that’s where things really ballooned.”

McKenzie said the group helped give surrounding communities a voice when disputing their water bills. 

DeKalb County interim CEO Lee May issued a moratorium on water disconnections for non-payment for residents in the billing dispute process, which ends Dec. 31 of this year.

In September, DeKalb County board of commissioners hosted a water bill town hall meeting. The meeting drew nearly 200 residents. 

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Jester helped get the group’s foot in the door, McKenzie said. During the town hall, McKenzie delivered a speech and shared stories from the group’s Facebook page. 

During the meeting, DeKalb’s Chief Operating Officer Zach Williams issued a formal apology to residents. ††

“We haven’t always given people the benefit of the doubt. I apologize for that. At the end of the day, we have had systems in place for a number of years that said ‘we’re right, you prove us wrong. I apologize for that,” Williams said. “I’m going to agree with the statements Star [McKenzie] said that ‘a business that says the customer is always wrong goes out of business.’ Each of you that are here, and those that aren’t here, deserve better.”

McKenzie said DeKalb County has a systematic issue as it relates to its water billing system. 

“It really became a way for the community as a whole to say ‘wait a minute, this isn’t right. You can’t do this to us.’ This is not just an isolated thing. This is a systemic issue that’s going on and this is widespread,” McKenzie said. 

DeKalb County government officials cited various issues with the water billing system, including residents not receiving bills on time, residents receiving too many bills at a time, water meter malfunctions and outdated water meters. 

Officials in May’s office said they have talked with members of the group and takes resident complaints seriously. 

“We hired additional staff on our [customer reassurance team] and the wait time on addressing concerns have decreased. We’re in the process of addressing everything,” said DeKalb County government spokesperson Andrew Cauthen. “We noticed various concerns about water bills and because it was not a quick fix, the interim CEO issued the moratorium so we could have time to work through concerns and issues.”

The county has extended billing dispute locations and hours. Residents can notify the Utility Customer Operations Center in Decatur, or call (404)-371-3000 to speak with a customer service representative to put their bill in the dispute process. 

McKenzie is scheduled to meet with DeKalb commissioners, Williams and Scott Towler, director of the watershed department, Dec. 6 to discuss the group’s demands, she said. 

McKenzie said she is pleased the group has gotten the county’s attention but believes the county still has work to do in resolving the issues.

“Why did it take so much pressure and noise from us, the taxpayers, to get Lee May and the COO to acknowledge that there are major issues within Watershed? At Lee May’s town hall he claimed he only recently realized there was a problem with the meters,” McKenzie wrote in a message. †“I refuse to believe he had no idea what was going on. And, if he truly didn’t know, then that’s an oversight issue that needs to be resolved.”

 

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