Set Nov. 8, Voluntary Move Seen as an Effort by All
The City of Falls Church released a statement late Wednesday afternoon reporting that the City, Fairfax County and the Fairfax Water Authority have mutually agreed to a voluntary mediation of their long-standing disputes over the operation of the Falls Church Water System, and to seek a possible agreement on the sale of Falls Church system to the county.
Not mandated by the court, but mutually agreed upon by all parties, the mediation date of Nov. 8 was set by Magistrate Judge Carroll Buchanan, who will serve as the mediator in a sit-down negotiation to include teams from all three entities. The outcome, or final recommendation of the mediator will not be binding.
“The fact we’re sitting down like this signals a willingness on the part of the parties to put forth the effort,” Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields told the News-Press in a telephone interview late Wednesday. He said that the primary subject of the mediation will be concerning the terms of a sale of the City’s system to the county.
He said the three parties, acting through their attorneys, reached an agreement on a mediation over the last few weeks, and awaited the approval by Judge Buchanan for it to become official which happened today.
“This is a good faith effort by the City to continue our long history of regional cooperation,” said Falls Church Vice Mayor David Snyder in the City’s press release. “The City will enter mediation in the best interests of its water customers, taxpayers and utility employees.”
“Our goal is to find a mutually acceptable resolution that recognizes the City’s investments in its Water Utility assets that have provided safe, dependable drinking water for more than 80 years,” said F.C. Councilman Ira Kaylin, who also serves on the City Public Utility Commission.
The City’s negotiating team will probably be the same core group that attempted direct talks with the Fairfax entities that ended without resolution in August. The team included Shields, City Attorney John Foster, Mayor Nader Baroukh and Councilman Kaylin.
The team for the upcoming mediation will “be of a similar composition,” Shields told the News-Press. The mediation agreement “indicates a willingness by all parties to work through to a mutually-desirable resolution,” he said.
The talks in July and August were about conditions and terms of the sale of the Falls Church system, and the parties walked away without reaching an accord.
Should an agreement not be reached in the Nov. 8 mediation, the City would resume its legal action to prevent the implementation of an ordinance passed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors that effectively claimed the authority of the County to set the rates for water use for all customers of the Falls Church system who reside in the county.
That legal action includes as co-plaintiffs with Falls Church the City of Fairfax and the Town of Vienna, both of which, like Falls Church, own water systems that have customers in the county.
Falls Church’s system, built up over an 80 year time span, has over 120,000 total customers, over 100,000 of which are county residents. The Falls Church system’s water rate is higher than the Fairfax County system’s at this stage due to cost of operating factors, but below the average for the region.
The County Board voted to claim the right of the county to mandate that the Falls Church rate be lowered in an unprecedented reach against the sovereign rights of a legal jurisdiction of the Commonwealth.