News

City of F.C. Faces Year of Opportunities, Challenges from Big Next Door Neighbor

Fairfax Co.’s Power Grab Over Water May Be Decisive

The City of Falls Church moves into a 2012 that will be filled with those twin, symbiotic prospects of challenge and opportunity.

The City has confronted extraordinary difficulties in recent years, stemming not only from the local impact of the global economic crisis, but a severe political and legal offensive from its oversized neighbor, Fairfax County.

Some say that the very viability of the City of Falls Church as an independent jurisdiction will be determined by how 2012 unfolds. If Fairfax County is successful in its power grab over water services traditionally provided by Falls Church, then the City could find itself in a tightening vice that could cripple its ability to provide effective services to its citizens at a reasonable cost.
Fairfax County enjoys the advantage of efficiencies of scale, deriving revenues from and providing services to over a million residents and a massive commercial base, while the City of Falls Church is tasked with providing full services to only 12,300 citizens in 2.2 square miles.

But Falls Church has the highest household income average of any jurisdiction in the U.S. (Fairfax County not far behind), and also has the highest percentage of adults with college and secondary degrees of any jurisdiction in the nation. So, those factors give it an unusual capacity to endure.

Aside from its location – adjacent two Metro rail stations, an interstate highway and the D.C. beltway providing swift access to all parts of the D.C.-Baltimore metropolitan region, equidistant between two major airports and a mere seven miles from the District – Falls Church main assets are its world-class public schools and its general quality of life.

Both of those assets are served best by the small size of the jurisdiction, as citizens enjoy up-close-and-personal attention to their needs.

One recently-arrived resident remarked about calling City Hall to learn something about the assessment of her property. She thanked the voice at the other end for his help, and asked his name. She was told that she was speaking directly to the City Assessor, himself, who added, “You don’t get that kind of direct access in a big city, now do you!”

This is the kind of thing that will make fighting for the long-term integrity and survival of the City of Falls Church more than worth the effort, many here say.

Even if court and legislative challenges fail to deter Fairfax County from effectively taking over the Falls Church water system, the City stands to lose little except face, since it is not earning a penny of net financial gain from the system as it is now.

It will ultimately be Fairfax County’s own residents who will pay the price of the county’s total monopoly over its water services, including the considerable cost to developers and other users of the county laying redundant pumping and pipe systems over the top of Falls Church’s existing ones.

Still, there will be a robust fight over the county’s move, a unanimous vote by its Board of Supervisors in December to mandate that all new water hookups in the county be with the county’s own water authority and that all water rates charged in the county be subject to review and revision by the County Board.

Among other things, there will be a serious challenge in the state legislature in Richmond this month, as the county’s unilateral action also impacts negatively on the water systems of the City of Fairfax and the Town of Vienna, in addition to Falls Church’s. One Democratic state senator, Chap Petersen, who represents Vienna, has vowed to introduce and fight for passage of a bill to outlaw Fairfax’s move.

Since Falls Church’s water system serves over 100,000 customers in Fairfax County through pipes and pumping stations operating in the area of the county, Tysons Corner, expected to experience an explosion of growth in the next decade, Falls Church’s ability to continue operating its system if the county’s power grab prevails will be seriously tested.

But the City would still have options, including selling its system not to the county, but to a third party which could, as the City can’t by virtue of a recent legal ruling, charge customers for a return on investment, thereby making a handsome profit.

Were that course followed, again it would be county residents, and not those in Falls Church, who would bear the brunt of what essentially would be an outcome precipitated by its own government. A third party, legally able to impose a surcharge for a return on investment and most likely with sufficiently muscular legal resources to maintain its right to it, could wind up charging county residents and businesses more for water than they would ever have had to pay Falls Church.

All that aside, Falls Church will not face the kind of budget crises its had in recent years, but with only very modest growth in real estate values expected, it will still be a very tight year for the City’s operational and school division budgets.

There will be an election for three City Council and School Board seats in May (the last time such elections will be held in May, the dates moving to November in 2013) and choices will reflect the vision that citizens have for the future of Falls Church in an era of profound change.

One thing is likely to be certain, that almost everyone voting in the City’s election in May will be resolute in their conviction to the long-term viability of their Little City.