By a unanimous 6-0 vote, the Falls Church City Council gave a preliminary approval to an 8% water rate increase to go into effect, the first phase of a “smoothed out” gradual increase in rates over the next five years deemed necessary to maintain the safety and quality of the City-owned water system. If given final approval at its July 11 meeting, the hike schedule effective Aug. 1 would be the first for the City’s system in six years. For the average residential user, the increase amounts to $2.04 per quarter.
However, the Council’s vote tonight did not come without fireworks. A queue of angry Fairfax County users of the Falls Church system berated the Council with an onslaught of invectives, accusations and threats. Among the speakers were the heads of both the McLean Citizens Association and the Falls Hills Homeowners. The allegations were that the rate hike decision is in violation of the ruling against the Falls Church Water System by Fairfax Judge Nye in January 2010 and that funds designated for capital improvement projects were disguised to supplement the City’s “return on investment” for its water fund after Judge Nye prohibited it.
County residents’ charges became even more heated when one called the Falls Church Council “arrogant” and “unconscionable,” engaging in a “shell game” and “out and out thievery.” The Council was accused of acting “above the law” and was threatened by attorneys with further legal action.
It was left to Falls Church Vice Mayor David Snyder to counter the charges, which he did with considerable force. Stressing his commitment to maintain the Falls Church water system “as safe and as reliable as humanly possible,” Snyder said that the City has delivered on that goal, and that all the decisions about capital spending needs have been based on maintaining that commitment. While he noted that systems elsewhere have sustained unsafe, high levels of lead, Falls Church’s has not. In addition, while not mentioning the incident by name, in 2003 Hurricane Isabel knocked out thousands of Fairfax County residents’ access to safe water due to the lack of a system of redundancy in place, whereas Falls Church’s decades-long commitment to excellent spared its system’s users from that.
“I will not be swayed by political arguments…pressing us to keep our rates artificially low,” Snyder intoned. “We are in full compliance with Judge Ney’s order to not transfer a return on investment to the general fund, and the reserves in the water system will remain in the water system.” He noted that as a result of Judge Ney’s ruling, citizens of Falls Church have been burdened with assuming a risk to run and issue bonds for the water system, including for its 100,000 customers in Fairfax County, without any compensation for the risk.
Snyder said that “we have repeatedly reached out to Fairfax Water Authority” to resolve matters out of court, and that new “win-win language” from Fairfax is encouraging. “I am all for that,” he said.
Falls Church Mayor Nader Baroukh said he hoped Falls Church could “sit down with Fairfax County” to work out differences, adding “I believe litigation is not the best way to do this.” No one else on the Council spoke.
Provision to provide more information to the public, including at area libraries, to document comparative rate structures between Falls Church and other systems throughout the region and the state and to make more of the details of proposed capital improvements available were agreed to by the Council.