Dranesville Supervisor John Foust has proposed that Fairfax County buy the Falls Church water system, which supplies water to McLean residents. Ninety percent of Falls Church's water customers live in Fairfax County.
His suggestion came after leading Falls Church officials appeared Wednesday night at the McLean Citizens Association meeting to explain and answer questions about a proposed price increase and the ongoing questions about a court decision in a recent case where Fairfax County successfully sued Falls Church City over water revenues.
Last week the Falls Church City Council tentatively approved an 8 percent increase in water prices, the first increase since 2005. If the Falls Church rates are approved by the city council, they will be nearly $30 higher than Fairfax County rates.
"It would be to our advantage for Fairfax water to purchase the system,” Foust said when asked by an MCA member about an acquisition. "I think it would be in the best interest of us if it were to happen.”
Foust expanded on his comments in a Thursday email, "I feel this is a good time for the city and Fairfax Water to try to resolve this long-running issue. Although Fairfax County is currently suing the city for a refund of overpaid water charges, I do not believe there is any current litigation pending between Fairfax Water and the city.
"In addition, because of the recently concluded litigation between Fairfax Water and the city, Falls Church Water can no longer include a return on equity as part of its water rates charged to Fairfax County residents," Foust said. In plain English, that means that Falls Church officials can no longer transfer excess revenue from water bills to the city's general operating budget.
Falls Church manager Wyatt Shields told the MCA that those transfers had totalled $2.2 million to $2.9 million per year.
Falls Church officials did not respond to inquiries asking for their position on a sale of their water system.
Buying the Falls Church water system is not a new idea. "I’m not sure how or when it originated, but I know it was seriously discussed about 25 years ago when the current county executive, Tony Griffin, was city manager of Falls Church," Foust said.
MCA president Rob Jackson said, "In 2010, the MCA wrote Chairman Bulova and Supervisor Foust asking them to look into the possible purchase of the portions of Falls Church water that serve Fairfax County. ... I would hope that, as John Foust indicated, since there is no more litigation between Fairfax Water and Falls Church, negotiations can resume. But, of course, any purchase price must be fair and reasonable and track the source and uses of funds."
Pamela Danner, a former Dranesville representative on the Fairfax Water board who attended the MCA meeting, said in an email that "Fairfax County Water Authority has discussed buying the Falls Church Water Authority on numerous occasions in the past. This includes during the time that I was the Dranesville member on the Fairfax Water Board.
"The negotiations did not result in purchase because, at the time, the City of Falls Church was using the Falls Church Water Authority’s surplus to contribute to the city’s general fund. Therefore, there was no incentive to sell to Fairfax Water at a reasonable price."
Danner, now running against Del. Barbara Comstock, said, "as a former member of Fairfax Water’s Board, I fully support, as I did then, the acquisition by Fairfax Water of the Falls Church Water Authority. This is particularly true since 90 percent of Falls Church Water Authority’s customers are residents of Fairfax County and Fairfax Water’s water rates are the lowest in the metropolitan area – far below the current and proposed water rates of Falls Church Water Authority."
Comstock, who also attended the MCA meeting, said she agreed with Foust that the county needed to look into acquiring the system.
She added that she and Del. Jim Scott had invited Falls Church Mayor Nader Baroukh, Vice Mayor David Snyder and City Manager Shields, who spoke at the MCA meeting, to appear at a town hall meeting in McLean to answer customer questions.
"Jim Scott and I made the request back in the Spring and they kept putting it off," she said in a follow-up email. "I renewed the request last night to all three of the attendees and asked them to follow up."
The issue of water rates and water refunds has been a long-running feud between Falls Church and Fairfax County. It has now erupted in the middle of an election year. Foust, Danner and Comstock are all running for office.
What's next? When Foust was asked if he would make a formal recommendation/proposal to his fellow Board of Supervisor members, he said: "I believe the Board of Supervisors would be supportive of Fairfax Water purchasing Falls Church Water. I know I would be. However, the purchaser would be Fairfax Water, which has its own independent board of directors."
Those directors are appointed by the Board of Supervisors and serve a specified term.
Fast Facts: Falls Church Water
Customers: 120,000 people in a 33 square-mile area that includes Severn Corners, Tysons Corner, Merrifield and McLean.
Prices: Currently $3.03 per 1,000 gallons. Proposed increase to $3.27 per 1000 gallons.
Water bill based on use of 24,000 gallons per quarter:
Fairfax County: $57.31
Falls Church $80.19 (current rates)
$86.61 (proposed rate increase)
Source: Falls Church Fact Sheet
Full Disclosure: McLean Patch is a Falls Church water customer.