James (Shorty) Shifflett, a Manassas Park water meter man, yesterday found himself leading a motorcade of police, reporters and city residents, all of whom wanted to watch him do what he does best - turn off the water.
The 5-foot-2-inch Shifflett, who is half of Manassas Park's water and sewer department, was caught between 35 irate Manassas Park homeowners who refuse to pay a two-month-old water bill that soared 400 percent and city officials equally determined to collect the bill or suspend water service.
"I doggone think I earned a raise after this," said Shifflett, 37, who was encircled throughout the day by television crews and angry neighbors as he lay on his belly, fishing around in water-filled shafts for the meter and cutoff valves.
"I don't have to pay no water bills cause I live with my mom and daddy, but if I did have to I would," said Shifflett.
The confrontation came as city officials carried out a threat to cut water service to delinquent users angered by bills that had quadrupled in June and July.
Cost overruns at the new Upper Occoquan sewage treatment plant and other factors had sent the bills soaring and sparked wide citizen protest.
Although the City Council cut the average annual water bill from $528 to $370 in the late summer, many residents said the charge was still unrealistically high.
His uncle, 52-year-old Reese Shifflett, refused to step off the water meter buried in his front lawn and was arrested by Manassas Park police.
Charged with obstructing police work, he was released later on his own recognizance.
"I was surprised to see Uncle Reese do it," said James Shifflett.
At police headquarters, Acting Chief Lewis Flint combed through the city ordinances looking for the least serious offense with which he could charge Reese Shifflett.
Behind James Shifflett's city-owned pickup truck was a caravan of indignant citizens in trucks, vans and cars, followed by school children on bicycles. For a short time the city's twolane main road, Manassas Drive, was knotted with traffic and the two-man police shift occupied in trying to get traffic moving again.
Police handed out dozens of tickets and threatened to arrest residents who congregated around Shifflett as he approached each water meter, claiming it was an "unlawful assembly." The crowds quickly dispersed.
"Everywhere there were signs, buttons and posters. "Cleanliness is next to Godliness" was crossed out and the word "impossible" inserted. "Let's go buy a six-pack, it's cheaper than water," said one poster propped against a modest-looking house.
Everywhere James Shifflett appeared he was greeted with a chorus of "Shorty" from residents, and there was a scurry to fill a last bottle or sink with water.
"May I use your toilet one last time?" asked one neighbor of another shortly before the water was cut off to his house. Another took a long last sip at the garden hose before it went dry.
Many residents seemed to be in good spirits, but beneath the chanting of "We won't pay" there was a more serious realization that the inconvenience of going without running water was imminent and high water bills still a reality.
"The Lord provides water to all his children and no one has the right to price water beyond the reach of these average hard-working citizens," said Terry Veverka of 8290 White Pines Dr., shortly after "Shortly" paid a visit to his block.
City Treasure Jerry Davis said he would file tax liens against the 35 delinquent homeowners today.
Jud Fischel, attorney for the 350-member Concerned Citizens of the City of Manassas Park Inc., said he would seek a court order today to have the water turned back on.
And for James (Shorty) Shifflett it was the toughest day at work he has had. All the attention, he said, gave him a headache, and though he felt as though he "was almost in Hollywood," he said he hopes he never has that feeling again.