A long-simmering water war between tiny Falls Church and giant Fairfax County has reached the boiling point. After three meetings in July, negotiations over the water rates the city has been charging customers who live in the county broke down, and both jurisdictions are now headed back to federal court.
As The Examiner's Aubrey Whelan reported in April, a Fairfax judge ruled in 2010 that Falls Church was guilty of taxation without representation. It was charging 120,000 county customers 60 percent more for the same water that 12,000 city residents were getting, then spending the $4.6 million in annual surplus revenue on municipal services unrelated to water.
After acquiescing to this price gouging for decades, Fairfax supervisors finally bestirred themselves last December, invoking a state law that gives them the authority to oversee all water rates charged to county residents. Falls Church challenged the amended ordinance, set to go into effect July 1, and a federal judge delayed enforcement until September.
Facing the loss of its golden goose, Falls Church tried to auction off its 80-year-old water system to an investor-owned utility but had to cancel after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nixed the idea. Fairfax County then offered to merge the two water systems, but the city demanded a minimum of $44 million up front and another $30 million to cover its outstanding debts and employee pensions. Fairfax officials countered that a merger would reduce city residents' water rates by a third and save more than $70 million in future capital costs.
Still no deal. Falls Church has already spent $1 million in court to defend its right to gouge its county customers. "I'm paying more to Falls Church for my water so they can spend $500 an hour on attorneys to sue me for the right to overcharge me in the first place," McLean resident Kirk Randall, a former utility economist, complained to The Examiner.
Falls Church claims the county is trying to establish a water monopoly so that it can collect millions of dollars from new commercial and residential development coming to Tysons Corner and Merrifield. This is a strange argument from a city that used its own water monopoly to overcharge county customers by $58 million. As the old saying goes, it takes one to know one.