By GEORGE BROMLEY
Falls Church Times Staff
June 28, 2011
The Falls Church City Council unanimously approved the first reading of a controversial 8% water rate increase Monday evening. Prior to the vote, several Fairfax County residents spoke in opposition, insisting that the increase was unjustified, due in part to earlier court rulings against the City.
Dennis Hennigan, an attorney, said he did not see how a system that had been so profitable now needed a rate increase. “Something does not add up here,” he said. “Falls Church should be reducing its rates and returning its overcharges to customers.” He added that he found it somewhat disturbing that the City showed so little deference to the findings of Virginia courts.
Hennigan cited Judge R. Terrence Ney’s Jaunuary 2010 finding that Falls Church could not transfer profits from its water system to its general fund. As only 8% of its customers reside in the City, most of the system’s revenue is collected from Fairfax residents, who derived no benefit from transfers to the general fund. The judge ruled Falls Church’s practice an unconstitutional tax on non-residents and enjoined it from making further transfers.
McLean Citizens Association president Ron Jackson criticized the water rate study the City used to justify the increase. “We’re paying twice,” he said, claiming that the system’s reserves were already built up due to past overcharges to Fairfax customers.
Elaine Cerriano called on the City to give people more time to review the study and raise. She asked for at least 45 more days and suggested the information be made available in county libraries.
Larry Sexton of the Falls Hill Civic Association concluded his questions for the Council by asking “Do you think if you didn’t have a monopoly we’d still be your customers?” Another speaker was even harsher, calling the Council arrogant and its actions unconscionable.
In response to the customers’ comments, Vice Mayor Dave Snyder stated that the City’s intention is to insure that the water rates are set so that the system will provide safe and reliable water to our customers, whether in Falls Church City or Fairfax County.
“I will not be swayed by political arguments or arguments directed to keep our rates artificially low that the system suffers,” he said. “Nor will I delay needed rate actions, even though politically popular, if those rate actions are essential to providing the quality of the water we provide all of our customers.”
Snyder said that the City was in full compliance with Judge Ney’s ruling and that the proposed rate increase is consistent with that ruling and not based on any such profit transfer. He added that traditionally, such organizations that are running a risk have a right to a fair rate of return, and that he respectfully did not agree with the court’s decision.
The vice mayor noted that the rate study had been posted on Falls Church’s website on June 1 and that copies have been provided to Fairfax officials and anyone who’d asked for it, but he agreed to furnish copies to libraries within the system’s service area.
Snyder said the bulk of the rate increase is to fund reserves and that the monies received would remain in the water fund. He also lauded the system’s water quality and its past performance during inclement weather, when it maintained its high standards while other systems could not.
Second reading of the ordinance is scheduled for July 11. If approved, the rate increase, the first in six years, would take effect on August 1.
Child Development Center Parents Seek Extension - Over a dozen parents of children attending the CDC asked the Council to consider extending the Easter Seal’s lease on the property, which is scheduled to expire in November. Speakers had high praise for the quality of care provided at the Center and the dedication of its staff. Many were concerned that they would not be able to find an alternative if the CDC were to close on short notice.
A task force has been formed to address the issue. Deputy City Manager Cindy Mester informed the council that it had met Monday afternoon and was scheduled to meet again on Thursday. Staff will set up a website page on the topic that would appear on both the City and Schools sites. Mester said the task force will ask the Council to extend its deadline to July 30.
For nearly 50 years the facility has been leased to Easter Seals, who would prefer an extension until at least the summer of 2013. Easter Seals would be willing to pay $50,000 annually for the space, currently leased at $1 per year.
City Schools have asked to assume control of the property in July 2012 in order to house the preschool education programs currently located at Mt. Daniel. This would also free space to permit the relocation of the Falls Church Community Center preschool program
Economic Incentives Adopted - The Council also unanimously approved, 6-0, with Ms. Gardner absent, a resolution establishing a policy which will give the City the opportunity to provide new incentives for commercial redevelopment. The stated goal is to encourage new and sustainable economic development and private investment in targeted areas of the City and to create a better balance between the City’s residential and commercial tax base components.
This will be achieved primarily through land use planning and zoning that provides height and density bonuses for desired outcomes in designed areas. In some cases the City will encourage and accelerate new commercial redevelopment by considering public participation, including tax increment financing and partial and temporary abatement of business taxes.
City Attorney John Foster advised that the resolution essentially serves as a guide to the Council going forward and that it does not extend any rights to developers.
Appointments - The Council appointed the following citizens to unexpired terms on various City commissions, committees, and boards:
Robert Loftur-Thun to the Planning Commission: (01/01/09) – 12/31/12
Julio Idrobo to the Housing Commission: (01/01/09) – 12/31/11
Paul Baldino to the Citizens Advisory Committee on Transportation: (02/01/09) – 1/31/12
Steve Selby to the Recreation and Parks Advisory Board: (09/01/09) – 08/31/12
Ed Henderson to the Historical Commission: (9/01/09) – 8/31/12
These officials were reappointed to their positions:
Jeff Peterson to the Library Board of Trustees: 07/01/11 – 06/30/15
Jonathan Fritsch to the Architectural Advisory Board: 06/01/11 – 05/31/14
Mark Gross to the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board: 07/01/11 – 06/30/14