An armistice has been reached in the long-simmering water war between Fairfax County and the city of Falls Church, giving county residents who were being overcharged for city water another thing to be thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend.
The war reached a boiling point this summer when negotiations broke down over the fact that Falls Church has been charging its 120,000 county customers 60 percent more for the same water as its 12,000 city customers, and then spending the extra $4.6 million on other municipal services.
In 2010, a Fairfax judge ruled that this hidden tax on county residents amounted to taxation without representation. Fairfax County offered to merge the city's antiquated water system with its own, but Falls Church demanded a minimum of $44 million upfront and another $30 million to cover its outstanding debts and employee pensions. Fairfax supervisors belatedly invoked a state law giving them authority to oversee all water rates charged to county residents, and so last December, Falls Church went to federal court. After a mandatory federal mediation session, the two jurisdictions finally announced a settlement last week.
Fairfax County agreed to buy the Falls Church Water Utility for $40 million and retain all of its employees. However, Falls Church is still responsible for $30 million in debt and pension obligations. Falls Church will stay its lawsuit until city residents have a chance to vote on the pending change next year. If it is approved, the two water systems will merge in January 2014 -- and both county and city residents will be charged the same uniform rate.
There are two reasons Falls Church residents should vote for the switch. A Fairfax judge found the city's two-tier pricing scheme discriminatory, and a federal judge would likely do so, as well. Furthermore, the costs of maintaining and upgrading the 80-year-old system will only increase in the years ahead.
Fairfax County says economies of scale will save tens of millions of dollars to fund future capital improvements within the consolidated system without raising rates. And the Washington Aqueduct, which currently supplies water to Falls Church, will provide a backup to the county's two state-of-the-art water treatment plants, a benefit for both jurisdictions in case of an emergency or natural disaster.
As the joint statement between the two former adversaries noted, the truce is a rare "win-win" for local water customers, the real victims of the water war.