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McLean Community Group Challenges F.C.’s Shields on Water Rate Hike Plan

Manager Outlines Need for First Rate Hike in 6 Years

 

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields was expected to face a room full of upwards of 60 McLean users of the Falls Church water system last night gathered at the monthly board meeting of the McLean Community Association to explain the reasons for an eight-percent water rate increase scheduled to go into effect Aug. 1.

A report on the meeting was not available prior to the News-Press going to press Wednesday night, but one was slated to be posted online at FCNP.com later tonight.

Falls Church city officials – including, in addition to Shields, Mayor Nader Baroukh and Communications Director Barbara Gordon – were bracing yesterday afternoon for a similar experience to the one they encountered at a Falls Church City Council meeting last month.

That meeting was laced with serious charges of impropriety and threats of new legal actions thrust by Fairfax County users of Falls Church water against the Falls Church City Council. Such comments, however, did not deter the F.C. Council from giving a unanimous preliminary approval to the water rate increase.

Anticipating last night’s meeting, Shields told the News-Press in a telephone interview yesterday, “I think that some of our (Fairfax) county customers may not understand that the City no longer takes any ‘return on investment’ from its water fund, and because of the court ruling by Judge Ney, has not taken any since July 2008.”

The proposed rate increase, the first by the City for its water system in six years, is grounded in nothing but the need of the system to remain financially sound to provide good service, “such that every time users turns on the tap, they’ll get quality water,” Shields said. It is also not true that the City charges a different rate for users of its system living inside, versus outside, the City.
Shields said he looked forward to the opportunity to “sit down and talk with customers face to face,” and that in addition to explaining the need for the rate increase, he will “listen carefully also.” He was slated to speak for 10 minutes, and take 20 minutes of questions.

Shields’ appearance was included as part of the agenda for a regular monthly meeting of the board of the McLean Citizens Association, which is made up of 40 members. In addition, the public is invited to sit in and observe the meetings, and Rob Jackson, president of the association, advised that as many as 60 people were expected to show up.

Reiterating that the planned eight percent rate increase marks the City’s first rate increase in six years, Shields noted that Fairfax County’s water system has increased its rates by 33 percent over the same time frame.

“Our rate is 10 percent below the regional average,” he added. “When you look at the rates over the whole region, we are two-thirds of the way from the top.”

Gordon reiterated to the News-Press that the rate increase is minimal, adding up to “only pennies a day,” a rate that adds up to from between $2 to $7 per quarter.

The increase is to offset the increased costs of every aspect of the water system, which the system has absorbed through improved efficiencies and no pay increases for its employees for three years, Shields noted.

He said when the City last raised its water rates six years ago, there was very little objection, “only about five phone calls,” he said.

Now, however, with the publicity surrounding the legal dispute between Fairfax and Falls Church on water services, this latest rate increase has stirred a lot of criticism of the Falls Church system from among its county users.

Referencing demands by some users in the county for refunds of water payments because of the Fairfax court ruling, Shields said “there is no basis for it.” He noted that Judge Ney addressed the issue in his court ruling, and determined that he did not require it. As far as Falls Church practice prior to the court ruling, Shields said that the City’s charter language about taking a return on investment “was very clear,” predicated on the notion that for Falls Church citizens to assume the risk of major investments in water infrastructure, it is appropriate to be compensated for that risk.

The F.C. City Council is prepared to give a final OK to the rate increase later this month, due to go into effect on Aug. 1.

 

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