The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors had been all prepared to vote on a sewer rate increase Monday. But the board scrapped the plans last weekend after hearing unexpectedly lengthy and detailed testimony from homeowners, citizen associations, senior citizens and builders at a public hearing Saturday.
It was not opposition to the rate that caused the board to decide to wait until at least early January to establish a new rate. Not one of the 15 speakers at the public hearing questioned the need for an increase.
The board decided to postpone any action after hearing arguments from the speakers on how much the increase should be and how it should be used.
Homeowners maintained that a rate increase should be used only for maintenance and operation of the current system and not to finance construction of new sewer projects to accommodate county growth.
Builders and developers maintained that any rate increase should be high enough to guarantee that the county would not have to use general sewer funds for operating and maintenance expenses, thus reserving the general fund for new sewer projects.
The current sewer rate is 95 cents per 1,000 gallons of sewer water used.
The county had proposed raising the rate to $1.27 per 1,000 gallons of water for one year and considering a larger increase the next year or raising the rate to $1.41 for a three-year period. If either had been approved, the increase would have been effective Dec. 1
As a result of the testimony Saturday, the board voted Monday to seek staff information in order to formulate a county policy that would assure that any rate increases would not be used for growth-related sewer projects. Such a policy would require the board to make distinctions between capital projects that are or are not growth-related, a complicated and possibly lengthy task. If the board can not decide on a rate increase by early January it may approve a temporary increase until it decides on a permanent rate.
At issue is a $19.2 million sewage diversion project for which thefederal Environmental Protection Agency denied funds last weeks. Fairfax County will have to decide how to pay for the project - the Difficult Run pumpdown - designed to carry sewage from the rapidly growing Herndon-Reston area to the county's treatment plant on Pohick Bay.
"It's time for Fairfax County to live up to its word and pay for that pumpdown with or without federal funds," said Francis Steinbauer, general manager of Gulf-Reston Inc., Reston's developers. "(Sewer hook-up) availability fees will pay for the pumpdown. The county should adopt at least a $1.41 (sewer increase) rate for one year, then go back and see if a higher one is needed."
Reston Community Association president Joanne Brownsword said the county should establish a high enough sewer increase to avoid using money from the general sewer fund for operating costs, as the county is now doing.
"We don't like higher sewer rates any better than anayone else, but we have a substantial stake in that pumpdown," Brownsword said. "The general fund should be used to help build it."
A statement from the Fairfax County Federation of Civic Associations, which was read at the public hearing, summed up opposite feelings of most homeowner.
"The board should remain firm in its stated determination that sewer service charges should not be used to finance capital improvements to the system, including the Difficult Run pumpdown," the statement read. "Even though the Difficult Run pumpdown project is not the subject of this public hearing, it does overshadow the entire discussion of sewer service charge rates."