Fairfax Water, F.C.’s ‘War of Words’ Escalates, But in Print

Still No Face-To-Face Talks As Row Grows

The chairman of the board of the Fairfax County Water Authority shot back at the City of Falls Church with a sharply-worded letter this week, responding to an exclusive Q and A with F.C. City Manager Wyatt Shields in last week’s News-Press.

The letter to the editor by Chairman Philip W. Allin, which is published in part, due to excessive length, in this week’s News-Press and which appears in full on the Fairfax Water web site, claims that Shields “left out a number of important facts your readers may be interested to know.”

It spelled out in seven points the history of the litigation between Fairfax’s Water system and Falls Church’s, centered on a territorial dispute in areas of Fairfax County historically serviced by Falls Church, noting that, to date, the courts have ruled in Fairfax’s favor, with another trial due in September.

At stake in the case are not only the traditional boundaries of the service areas of the county’s and City’s water systems, but revenues from the explosive growth that is anticipated in Tysons Corner in the wake of the extension of the Metro’s Silver Line through the area. The Tysons Corner and also-exploding Merrifield areas of the county are currently serviced by the Falls Church system, which has been in place since the 1930s.

The boundaries between the two systems have been informally honored by both systems since a formal agreement established by them lapsed in 1989. That was until 2007, when Fairfax made its first move to encroach into the traditional Falls Church area.

Allin’s letter also points to Fairfax’s lower rate charged to its customers for its water use, assails the fact that F.C. transfers $2.2 million from its water fund annually to its operating budget, claiming the City “has essentially taxed Fairfax County citizens to fund the City’s government operations.”

Moreover, Chairman Allin claims that “Shields’ suggestion that the City has reached out to Fairfax Water to try to settle this dispute is incorrect,” noting that when F.C. first sued Fairfax Water in February 2007, “it did so without prior notice to us,” and that F.C. has continued to refuse to “stop engaging in practices designed to prevent Fairfax County customers from switching water providers.”

But while the evidence remains that neither side has sat down face-to-face to discuss the matter, Shields fired back at the latest Fairfax letter with a statement received by the News-Press yesterday, claiming that Allin’s “recent comments…miss the point.”

Allin, Shields stated, “complains about the contribution of water funds to the City budget, yet this is permitted by law and is common practice throughout the country as a reasonable rate of return for the risks in operating such a system.”

Shields added that Allin “complains about City water rates, yet City water rates are below the average for the region.” While the City’s rate is $3.03 per 1,000 gallons, it is lower than rates in Washington, D.C., Leesburg, Fairfax City, Manassas Park, Vienna and other area jurisdictions. While Fairfax County’s rate is $1.83, it reflects a recent jump from $1.70 and an increase in its quarterly billing service charge from $6.25 to $7.05, with no guarantees that rates will not continue to rise.

Fairfax’s water connection fees are “considerably higher” than Falls Church’s, Shields has pointed out, and if Fairfax wins its lawsuits against Falls Church, it will burden more than 100,000 of the county’s own citizens that use the F.C. system with even higher rates to cover the cost of the litigation.

In his statement yesterday, Shields stated, “What is at issue here is the fact that Fairfax Water has attempted for several years to cherry pick the City’s larger commercial customers. This is highly unusual and disruptive behavior for a water utility.”

He continued, “To date, Fairfax Water has been unsuccessful in attracting customers in the City’s traditional service area, due to its higher connection fees and the obvious inconvenience and expense of running new, duplicative water mains to properties already served by the City.”

“Now,” he went on, “a development near the Dunn Loring Metro is being required to connect with Fairfax Water as a condition of its zoning approvals. The City has objected to this coercive approach, and consequently, has been sued by Fairfax Water. This is regrettable. Over this period, City officials have repeatedly, and continue to reach out to our colleagues in Fairfax County, to work toward resolution of the matter in the public interest.”

Shields told the News-Press Tuesday that he feels Fairfax’s action are “politically driven,” and hopes that a dialogue can soon ensue with the county having recently elected a new chair of its Board of Supervisors.