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Residents Sue Over Water Bills

Residents outside of Leesburg say water and sewer rates too high.

River Creek resident Stewart Curley does not want a free ride, but he does want to be treated fairly by the local government, he said

Curley, who has lived outside of the Town of Leesburg for six years, is one of seven plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against the town over the rates they are being charged for water and sewer. All of the plaintiffs live outside of the Town of Leesburg, in communities such as Potomac Station, Spring Lakes and River Creek, that are served by the town's water and sewer facilities.

THE LAWSUIT, which was filed at the beginning of October, Curley said, states Leesburg is breaking its 1986 agreement with the county by charging out-of-town residents a 100 percent water and sewer surcharge.

"The Virginia statute says the rates have to be fair and equitable for both parties," Curley said. "By definition how can equitable be beneficial for just one side?"

In December, the Leesburg Town Council voted to increase the out-of-town fees 36 percent, bringing the rate to almost $6 per 1,000 gallons of water. In-town residents pay a rate of $2.67.

"The bottom line is the town hired a consultant who went in to do an analysis of the water utility. They thought the utility was in good shape and could be used for other things," Curley said. "It turns out they had a 30 percent revenue hole."

WHEN THE communities in question were not annexed by the Town of Leesburg in 1986, the town agreed to keep their rates "fair and equitable" for those residents, Curley said.

"I think they really just forgot about that," Curley said, "when they had to very quickly make up for the hole they had dug themselves."

Curley, and others involved in the lawsuit, believe it is unfair for the Town of Leesburg to force them to shoulder the burden of the town's water utility deficit.

"We aren't residents of Leesburg, so we cannot vote," Brian Shiflett, a River Creek resident since 1997, said.

Shiflett said the in-town residents have not seen a rate increase since 1992, while the out-of-town residents saw their rates rise to a 50 percent surcharge in 2000.

"We didn't like it, but we said it was reasonable," he said. The newest rate increase, however, Shiflett said is not reasonable.

LEESBURG MAYOR Kristen Umstattd said she does not believe that the lawsuit is valid and that there is precedent behind the town's actions.

"The town will aggressively defend its position and its citizens," she said.

Umstattd said most of the towns in Loudoun County have a significant surcharge for their out-of-town users.

"The town staff reviewed other localities," she said, adding that the town reviewed the 2006 Virginia Water and Wastewater Rate Report before making its decision.

The study shows that the Town of Hamilton charges its in-town residents $4.70 per 1,000 gallons and out-of-town residents $1 more. The Town of Purcellville charges its out-of-town residents $4 more than its in-town residents, the Town of Round Hill more than $3.

Umstattd said Leesburg's rate increase is fair because the out-of-town residents do not pay taxes to help support the town's water and sewer services.

"We felt it was an unfair burden to put on our taxpaying in-town users," she said.

Curley and Shiflett said they think that argument is "smoke and mirrors."

"No taxes on the surface sounds fair, but the town taxes don't supplement the water utility," Curley said. "They go to police, road and other services as well."

THE PLAINTIFFS said the high water and sewer rates would not be as big of a concern, if the out-of-town residents had a choice about where they got their water and sewer services.

"We can't put wells in because that's the way the plan is written," Shiflett said. "We can only go to the Town of Leesburg."

Curley said because of the 1986 decision, residents cannot use the Loudoun County Sanitation Authority water and sewer services, which has much lower rates. According to the state's 2006 water and wastewater report, county residents pay $2.90 per 1,000 gallons of water.

Both Shiflett and Curley said they believe Leesburg has a right to make some profit off of their out-of-town users, but not 100 percent profit.

"We want to force them to use a cost-based method to deciding the rates," Curley said. "There has to be some sort of rationale for that. We are glad to pay our fair share."