Local Commentary

Editorial: Fairfax Water’s Power Play

After a careful review of the arguments from both sides, and with the benefit of following the issues week-to-week for over 18 years, it is our assessment that the City of Falls Church is in the “right” and Fairfax County in the “wrong” in the current, potentially very damaging water dispute between the two.

At present, giant Fairfax County is wielding the full force of its considerable clout to break the will, and the fiscal viability, of the Falls Church system. It is playing “hardball” by making zoning approvals contingent on new development projects signing up for County water, despite being located in the Falls Church water system’s traditional service areas like Tysons Corner, and it is taking the City of Falls Church to court, seeking $22 million in damages.

It may be true that there are customers of the Falls Church system residing in Fairfax County who may wish to be served by the county’s system, instead, especially since county water is cheaper, at least for the time being. But there are bigger issues of fair play and fundamental property law that are also at play, but which might require legal remedies that some in the county may hope prove prohibitive for the tiny City of Falls Church to fully pursue. Among other things, county officials know better than to call the City’s use of a portion of water proceeds for its operating budget an “unfair tax” on county residents. It is a bogus political charge akin to populist rabble-rousing.

In fact, the Falls Church system has been operating since the 1930s, and was managed with such great care and deference to its users, more than 100,000 of whom reside in Fairfax County, that it went decades with no rate increase until November 1992. That historic rate hike was the subject of a banner headline in the News-Press at the time. Later in the 1990s, the News-Press reported on the efforts of the Falls Church City Council and City Hall officials to grapple with the issue of extracting a reasonable “return on investment” (ROI) for the risks involved in operating their giant water system. Numerous consultants were retained and the City was assured that the practice of taking a reasonable ROI is not only legal and common across the nation, and in Virginia, but that not taking it is detrimental to the jurisdiction’s taxpayers, as they must pay more in taxes to subsidize the fact that the county users of the water system are thereby paying too little.

Later, when the City learned it would have to bear the cost of a significant rate increase from its water provider, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Council voted against passing through the full cost of the increase to its water users. Again, by so doing, the City effectively subsidized the county users of its system at its own citizens’ expense.

Fairfax County is now engaged in a crude power play with, we speculate, an eye to grabbing the lion’s share of the considerable new development slated for Tysons Corner. That’s about all there is to it.