Understanding the Needs of a Changing Customer Base in Gwinnett County

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Author: Melissa Levin, Vice President (Email)


The Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources (GCDWR) serves a growing service area northeast of Atlanta, and the County has a history of adapting to demographic changes. The county’s growth trajectory began in the 1970s and from 1986 to 1988 Gwinnett County was the fastest growing large county in the U.S., reaching a population of more than 350,000 by 1990—more than twice the size it was just a decade earlier. Today, the county’s population continues to rise. As the second-fastest growing county in the Atlanta metro area as of August 2019, Gwinnett County has over 925,000 residents, and has maintained steady growth each year over the past decade.

GCDWR continues to invest in key water and wastewater infrastructure needed to keep pace with this rapid growth. At the same time, it must learn how to adapt services for all customers within an increasingly diverse service area. In the past few decades, minority populations in Gwinnett County have become the majority, and the county also attracts newcomers. About 39% of the population has moved there from other states and 25% were born outside the United States. While median county income exceeds both state and national averages, the number of low-income families have grown, placing higher demands on social service providers.

GCDWR strives to ensure that all customers have access to safe, reliable, and affordable water and wastewater service. In recent years, GCDWR has noted increasing numbers of customers that regularly have service locked off due to non-payment. Lock-offs are costly for the utility and potentially devastating for customers. The estimated direct costs for the county are roughly $0.5 million each year resulting from lock-offs/shut-offs. These costs do not account for costs related to customer service, administrative time, outreach, and education, or perhaps most importantly, goodwill with customers and stakeholders. All of these efforts can clearly drive up the time and effort associated with shutoffs and significantly increase costs over and above the estimated $0.5 million annually.

As a result of the increasing numbers and costs, GCDWR began to look into economic and demographic factors that contribute to excessive lock-offs including:

  • Low household income leading to general affordability issues
  • Higher than normal water bills due to leaks in the home
  • Communication issues with non-English speaking customers
  • Difficulty in navigating payment methods or customer assistance options

Raftelis was engaged to examine the relationship between demographics, water usage, leak adjustments, household income, household age, home ownership and lock-offs across the County to determine how best to assist customers.  The result of the study was a path forward to begin to adjust programs, policies, and procedures to facilitate improved payment patterns, reduce service lock-offs, and ultimately improve customer service.

What Did We Find?

Raftelis reviewed the number of lock-offs or shut-offs over a three-year period for the County from 2017 to 2019. On average, roughly 20,000 shut-offs occurred on an annual basis. Upon more extensive examination, it was discovered that approximately 38% of these annual disconnects are the result of repeat non-payment, those customers that are routinely disconnected. Some of these customers are shut-off multiple times within a year up to seven times per year. These are the customers that are clearly having ongoing issues and where most of the attention should be focused. The County determined that these customers were struggling to pay the bill and perhaps did not understand the assistance that the County can provide.

An additional key take-away from the data analysis was the above average water usage for these disconnected accounts. The water usage for the County’s average bill is approximately 4,800 gallons per month. For those customers that had service that was ultimately shut-off, the average water usage was approximately 6,000 gallons per month—25% more than the average user. Based on discussions with County staff and their experience in working with the disconnected customers, it is believed that the increased amount of usage is most likely due to inefficient appliances and water leaks due to older fixtures; something that can be improved with the appropriate assistance.

Using data and information collected from the initial data analysis, Raftelis sought to identify variables and factors that contribute to the County’s increased number of shut-offs. Three areas were identified to examine to check for correlations. These areas are described in detail below.

Affordability

Affordability is clearly one of the first places utilities look when there is a problem with customers paying their utility bill, and as such, was the first area identified to examine. Using the 1997 EPA Guidance which is the 4% of median household income threshold for water and sewer bills, Raftelis examined affordability from a County-wide perspective. Based on this guidance no significant affordability issues for the County as a whole were identified. However, many households do face “unaffordable” bills. Raftelis estimated that roughly 5 – 10% of the County’s customers or roughly 12,000 to 24,000 customers faced unaffordable bills at this time. When we look back to 2010 vs. today, customer bills are up by approximately 29% vs. the County’s lowest quintile income (LQI) only increasing by 5.5% for this same time period. Looking forward, the LQI is not projected to increase at the rate as the bills, so this gap will continue to widen as a growing number of customers will face “unaffordable” bills.

Overlaying the LQI information with the County’s shut-offs information, as would be expected, the lower income did correlate with the number of shut-offs confirming our expectations. However, the relationship was not a “perfect” relationship, which signaled that there may be additional variables contributing to the number of shut-offs.

American Community Survey Data/Census Data

Additional information that can be examined to identify variables that correlate with the increased number of disconnects is the information provided by the American Community Survey. Raftelis examined several variables as shown below:

  • Population Diversity
  • Household Diversity
  • Median Home Value
  • Median Household Income
  • 20th Percentile Income
  • Home Ownership
  • Age 60+
  • Poverty
  • Median Rent
  • Median Year Structure Built
  • Public Assistance/SNAP
  • Household Size

A regression analysis to examine the correlation of each of these variables with the three-year history of shut-offs data collected from the County was performed. The R-squared or correlation coefficient was the highest for the following three variables analyzed:

  • Population Diversity – the more diverse the census tract, the higher the number of shut-offs
  • Household Diversity – the higher the number of non-white heads of households, the higher the number of shut-offs
  • Median Home Value – the lower the median home value, the higher the number of shut-offs

The high correlation of these variables to the number of shut-offs indicates that diversity (both population and household) as well as the median home value are contributors to the number of shut-offs.

Single Family vs. Rental Properties

Additional examination of the data showed that there was also disproportionate number of rental properties that were disconnected on a routine basis as compared to single-family residential properties. Looking at the number of shut-offs roughly 19% of the County’s customers are rental properties vs. single family residential, however, 41% of the completed shut-offs were from rental properties leading to the conclusion that rental properties have a higher correlation to shut-offs.

In summary, the variables that were found that were the most highly correlated to the increased number of shut-offs for the County were the following:

  • Low income/affordability
  • Low median home values
  • Diversity (Population and Household)
  • Rental properties

Summary of Recommendations

 To address the factors that have a direct correlation to increasing shut-offs, Raftelis worked with the County to identify several different strategies, outside of income-based assistance for the County to explore:

  • Effective communication of existing programs using county language services and outreach
  • Conservation assistance (going into the community)
  • Enhanced partnering with community social service organizations/emergency assistance (i.e. tenant advocacy, etc.)
  • Policy modifications

Targeted Communication

Because of the increased diversity in the County, communication is of the upmost importance. English is not the native language of many of the County’s water and sewer customers, which can create communication obstacles. A three-pronged communication approach has been outlined to aid in customer’s understanding of the assistance that the County can provide.

Communication with specific customers can be achieved via direct communication and through mail communication. Direct communication is accomplished through text messaging and/or automatic calls focused on shut-offs. In addition, the County’s billing system has the ability to incorporate messaging on the monthly bills of higher frequency shut-off communities. Information can also be incorporated into the County’s existing mail communication, the disconnection notice postcard, that is distributed to customer’s facing potential disconnection.

Direct and mail communication allows the County to communicate directly with those customers that regularly do not pay and are then shut-off. The County can communicate messaging related to the following:

  • Conservation assistance
  • Emergency assistance
  • How to use the County’s payment plans
  • Multi-Language translation services available

Additionally, the County can provide this messaging in two to three different languages depending on the area that the communication is targeted.

For more broad-based communication that includes all customers, the County can employ regular campaigns on their website, through bill inserts and advertising. Outreach communication can be used as an opportunity to educate all customers regarding some of the programs that the County provides, but also used to encourage conservation assistance and emergency assistance if needed for job loss and other circumstances.

Conservation Assistance

The County can target high shut-offs areas for the distribution of dye kits and flappers. Partnering with additional agencies such as the local fire department to distribute these kits and flappers is also an option. Given that the analysis showed higher usage for those customers that are shut-off, it is likely that these kits and flappers are needed. Another option for the County is to partner to provide in-home conservation assistance for minor leak repair and low-flow water fixtures.

Emergency Assistance/Partnering

The County can direct in-need customers to the Gwinnett Coalition as well as other agencies such as St. Vincent and the Salvation Army. The County can work to help obtain funding for these agencies through voluntary round-up of customer bills to generate funds. In addition, the County can work with the Grants Division of the Department of Financial Services to secure CARES act funding as well as other partnering opportunities that will help those customers in need.

The County currently has plans and policies in place to help those customers having difficulty paying their bills. Many of the plans are not utilized or not utilized correctly due to a lack of understanding in the way that the plan works. In addition to the strategies described above, the County’s plans/policies related to late payments can be modified to make them more effective and user friendly.

Many of these strategies can be combined through a holistic approach to achieve a broad strategy aimed at improving collections from the customer’s point of entry into the system. It may be possible for the County to build out tools for assessing customers based on history and segmenting them based on risk profile. This way the County can offer programs concentrating resources where they are the most needed.