Utility legislation fails in Senate committee after supervisors vote to support it

By Caitlin Gibson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 11:48 PM

The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted Monday to support legislation that would have protected out-of-town Leesburg utility customers from disproportionate water and sewer rate charges. But the proposed legislation failed to emerge from a Senate committee Tuesday and was effectively killed.

Senate Bill 1475, introduced in the Virginia General Assembly on Jan. 21 by state Sen. Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun) and state Del. Joe T. May (R-Loudoun), sought to provide a permanent solution to a years-long battle over utility rates charged by Leesburg to customers living outside the town limits.

Residents on both sides of Leesburg's boundary receive water and sewer services through the town. But for years, customers living in communities outside the town limits have been subjected to higher rates.

The bill would have required the Board of Supervisors to approve any proposed increase in the percentage difference between utility rates charged to in-town Leesburg customers and rates charged to so-called out-of-town customers. The bill would not have prevented the Leesburg Town Council from increasing utility rates and fees but would have required board approval for increases in the percentage differential beyond that established as of Jan. 1.

The Leesburg Town Council voted unanimously Jan. 25 to oppose the bill. On Tuesday, Leesburg Vice Mayor Kevin D. Wright and Leesburg Town Attorney Jeanette A. Irby testified against the bill before the Senate's Local Government Committee, Leesburg Town Council member Kenneth "Ken" Reid said. Despite the victory in the committee, Reid said, the tie vote was too close for comfort.

"I don't think we can sit back and raise the rates the way some people want us to do," he said. "It came within a hair of going forward."

Reid said the bill would have posed a significant conflict of interest.

"It was very unfortunate that the board did not see the fact that the county is a big water user, probably the biggest customer from the town of Leesburg," he said. "And to give them a vote on the out-of-town differential is akin to giving the carwash guy a vote. He's another of our biggest customers."

He said he hoped the town and county might be able to find another way to compromise on the heated issue.

"If the Board of Supervisors and Loudoun Water want to talk about a joint regional water authority, I think that is something that may be worthwhile to discuss," Reid said.

Six supervisors voted to support the Senate bill. Two, Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling) and Kelly Burk (D-Leesburg), opposed it. Supervisor Susan Klimek Buckley (D-Sugarland Run) was absent.

Delgaudio and Burk argued that the county should avoid involvement in the matter and respect Leesburg's authority.

"Just remember how often the board complains about how Richmond takes away our power," Burk said. "Remember what it feels like, and how frustrated we feel when it happens to us."

Burk also echoed concerns raised by Leesburg Mayor Kristen C. Umstattd, another opponent of the bill. Umstattd e-mailed the Board of Supervisors to say the bill was not well written and could make it more difficult for the town to secure bond financing.

Supervisor Sally Kurtz (D-Catoctin), who proposed the motion to support the bill, defended the legislation. She said it seemed fair that if the Leesburg Town Council wanted to increase the rate differential affecting out-of-town residents, "then they need to come to the table with people who represent out-of-town folks, also."

The supervisors' vote followed a well-attended hearing at which several utility customers from communities outside Leesburg appealed to the board to support the legislation.

Paul Kohl of Lansdowne said he had spent more than $14,000 in the past several years on water for basic needs such as laundry, bathing and watering his lawn, and he asked that the board give the out-of-town utility customers a voice.

"The bills that I've seen as a father of four in my household over the last six years are just astronomical," he said, "and I look for some support from the board so that I have some recourse for the rate structure that I've been under for that long."

The legal battle began when a group of out-of-town utility customers filed suit against Leesburg in 2006, after a 100 percent surcharge on water and sewer bills was applied in December 2005.

The Loudoun County Circuit Court ruled in favor of the out-of-town customers in 2009 and outlawed the Leesburg ordinance, but the town appealed the decision, and it was overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court on Nov. 4.

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