F.C. Council Gives Preliminary OK, 6-0, To 8% Water Rate Hike Over Protests

Fairfax County Users Launch Angry Attacks At Monday’s Meeting

By a unanimous 6-0 vote Monday, the Falls Church City Council gave a preliminary approval to an eight percent 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, for $8.16 a year.

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.

“I want to make clear that I will be guided in this process by a single goal: ensuring that the City’s water rates are set so that the water system will continue to provide safe and reliable water to our customers, whether they are in the City or the County,” he said.

While he noted that systems elsewhere have sustained unsafe levels of lead from time to time, 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 or arguments that are directed to keeping our rates artificially low so that the quality of our system suffers,” Snyder intoned.

He added, “The City has complied with Judge Ney’s ruling in all respects, and remains in compliance today. Judge Ney ruled that the City cannot transfer profits from its water fund to its general fund. The proposed rate increase is consistent with that ruling and is not based on any such profit transfer.

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. “Having worked in the private sector on similar issues, the law is that when you take a risk you have a right to the opportunity for a fair rate of return. So I respecfully disagree with that ruling. Nonethless we are fully complying with it,” he said.

“The bulk of our proposed rate increase is intended to fund reserves to protect the City’s water system and to assure that it has the financial security necessary for it to continue to be an excellent system. All of this money for the proposed reserves is intended to stay in the water system, and there will be no transfer of those funds to the City’s general fund,” he reiterated.
Snyder said, “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.

The report of Ed Donahue, a nationally-recognized expert on utility rate-making, recommending the rate change schedule the Council voted preliminarily to adopt Monday has been on the City’s website in full since June 1.

It calls the “leveling out” an increase in water rates to eight percent annually for the next three years, and three percent each for two years after that.

Sample customer bills included in the report show that for residential users at 6,000 gallons base usage, and no peak usage, rates would rise from $25.65 quarterly to $27.69, a quarterly increase of $2.04.

Residential usage with 5/8-inch meters at 6,000 base usage and 3,000 gallons of peak usage would see rates grow from $39.51 to $42.66, a quarterly increase of $3.15.

Residential usage with 5/8-inch meters at 12,000 gallons base usage and 6,000 peak usage would rise from $71.55 to $77.25, a quarterly increase of $5.70.

Residential usage with 5/8-inch meters at 18,000 gallons base usage, and 6,000 peak usage would increase from $89.73 to $96.87, a quarterly increase of $7.14.

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields will discuss the rate hike at meeting with the board of directors of the McLean Civic Association next Wednesday, July 6, at 7 p.m. at the McLean Community Center. The meeting is open to the public.