DeKalb County, GA — She started a movement in DeKalb County five years ago with a Facebook group, Unbelievable DeKalb Water Bills, and now Star McKenzie is shifting roles.
McKenzie resigned last month from the DeKalb County Water Advisory Board, having served on the board since its inception in 2017. She served as board chair for the last year.
For years, McKenzie worked to help residents negotiate the process of investigating, reducing and correcting inflated water bills. She now plans to push systemic change in Dekalb by partnering with fellow advocates, neighbors and community organizations to demand affordable, clean water for all residents, she said.
“I’ve successfully helped many residents this way, but progress is slow and the fixes are band-aids on a much larger, more complicated set of problems,” she said.
On her resignation, McKenzie posted to social media: “My sole purpose of serving was resident advocacy. I realized early on that we had little leverage to push process and policy changes. Requests for Service Level Agreements and documented Customer Rights went nowhere. But, if I could help resolve residents’ ongoing disputes it was worth the time and effort. Today, the CFO [Dianne] McNabb took the ability to review individual accounts away from the Board even when the residents give us permission. In her words, ‘the customers can add you to their accounts if they want you to discuss billing details.’ I assure you I will continue to act as your water billing advocate through this group and other, more productive, means.”
McKenzie moved from East Lake to City of Decatur in 2016. Her first water bill totaled $340, and she was shocked, she said. Water had always been the cheapest utility. In her former home, she was paying around $80 per month.
When she started her fight against inaccurate water bills, she never expected such a widespread response.
“I was thinking it would be a check-in with neighbors to see who else was getting higher water bills,” she said. “Three months later, in April 2016, we had 200 members, and by October of that year we had 2,000 members.”
The group now has nearly 5,000 followers, and posts range from curious to angry. Despite the amount of press DeKalb County has received about water, residents still do not understand the process for disputing water bills.
“Because of COVID, I have been thinking about how many people are in danger of losing their homes. While the county won’t disconnect your water, you have to continue paying the average amount. Some people can’t do that,” she said.
Just last week McKenzie spoke with a resident who has a lien on her home due to unaffordable, past due water bills. She had to pay $2,000 to have her water reconnected. Now, she is falling behind on the payment plan that requires her to pay over $500 her current bill each month for a year. With no financial assistance programs to turn to, she feels helpless and scared, said McKenzie.
Upon McKenzie’s resignation, DeKalb County commissioners were choosing board members to represent their areas. Newly-elected Commissioner Ted Terry confirmed the reappointment of David Clark to the board. Commissioner Robert Patrick did not respond to an inquiry about his appointee. McKenzie’s position as board chair has not been filled by Commissioner Jeff Rader.
During her time on the DeKalb Water Advisory Board, members of the board and employees of the county resigned with little to no notice.
– Scott Towler, the former director of DeKalb County Watershed, resigned in 2018 and filed a lawsuit against DeKalb County for allegedly coercing him to perform illegal activities. Towler moved to the Caribbean.
– Board member Gaye Stathis left the board in 2018, and moved to South Carolina shortly after. “I was disgusted by the process,” said Stathis. “With DeKalb, it seems the motto is the consumer is guilty until proven innocent.”
– Antrameka Knight, former deputy director of finance and employee in charge of billing, unexpectedly resigned in late summer 2019. She now works at Kennesaw State University in budget and finance.
– Ted Rhinehart, former deputy chief operations officer of infrastructure, was named in Towler’s lawsuit. He quietly left DeKalb County in May 2020. He currently sits on Tucker’s Urban Redevelopment Agency.
– Teresa Slayton was fired from DeKalb County Purchasing and Contracting Department in 2017. She then filed a whistleblower lawsuit accusing the county of bid rigging watershed contracts and encouraging unethical practices, naming Talisa Clark in July 2018.
– Talisa Clark stayed with DeKalb County as chief procurement officer until January 2020. She is now a self-employed consultant.
– Warrick Sams, Slayton’s former supervisor, was fired from DeKalb County in 2017. Sams moved to Florida.
McKenzie said, “The heart of the issues goes back to a lack of consistent processes, poor communication and Dekalb’s attitude that the customer is guilty until proven innocent. How can residents understand the process when it is different depending on who answers the phone? As chair of the board, I could never get a clear explanation of the final stage before a dispute is closed or arbitration process from the director of finance.
“If I can’t understand the processes after 5 years of living and breathing this cause then it’s no surprise that the average citizen is confused. It hurts to me to think of the disadvantaged, elderly and ill who simply do not have the resources to fight for affordable water—and that’s why I won’t quit.”
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