Over the course of the last 23 years, Vienna resident and planning commission member George Creed has watched his quarterly water bill triple, and after a 5-1 council decision at a June 4 public hearing, he’ll watch that rate rise just a little higher next year.
Vienna’s Town Council voted in favor of a staff recommendation to raise water and sewer service rates for town residents by 15 and five percent, respectively, for the coming fiscal year, beginning July 1. The rate increase will cause an annual combined rise for the average Vienna resident will be $59.28 as a result of that raise, according to town documents.
The move made Town of Vienna residents the highest payers for water in the region, and the second-highest for sewer services, according to data collected from several regional agencies.
It is a problem that Creed has witnessed for several years, but still cannot entirely understand.
"The problem we have is that we’re paying bigger bucks than most people," said Creed," no one gets up and talks about it." Creed spoke at last week’s public hearing decrying that Vienna residents have to pay rates more than twice that of Fairfax County residents.
THE REASON FOR the inflated prices rests in the fact that Vienna runs its own water delivery infrastructure and because of the existence of old water connections that have not been replaced in several decades, must buy the majority of its water wholesale from the City of Falls Church, according to Vienna finance officials. That, paired with the fact that the city runs its own water repair service and must cover several regulating and operational fees, causes the high price of service, they added.
The Town of Vienna pays for a little under 86 cents per 1,000 gallons of water they get – about one-third of its total supply – from Fairfax County Water, according to budget numbers. The other two-thirds of the water comes from the City of Falls Church at a rate of $1.74, it read.
The possibility of simply switching over to 100 percent Fairfax County Water supply is not viable at the moment, as the town would need to spend several millions of dollars to update its water main infrastructure before the county can pump in more water, according to town council member Edythe Kelleher. Kelleher, who was the sole vote in opposition to the rate increase, has been investigating the options for lowering water and sewer rates in town for the last several years, she said.
"The thing is that [water and sewer rates] are getting worse and the staff is starting to develop reports," on some of these options, Kelleher said.
Some of those options have included the Town of Vienna financing a capital improvement plan to its approximate 50-year-old water main system to allow for more Fairfax County Water supply, or see if the town can turn its water system over to Fairfax County to handle its water usage. That final option is unlikely for the time being, as it would cause countywide water rates to increase with the cost of the necessary updates, Kelleher added.
THE TWO REMAINING options for Vienna require at least some capital improvement money going to repair the town’s aging water main system in the next few years, according to Kelleher.
"Whatever is going to be least expensive for us at the end of the day is what we’re obviously going to have to find out and ultimately go for," she said. "We have a lot of old pipes out there and we need to find a way to deal with that."
The ultimate goal is to bring Vienna water rates down to the level of the rest of the county, but how to most efficiently accomplish that while using as little town money as possible is still up in the air, said Vienna Mayor M. Jane Seeman.
"We’re trying to do whatever we can to get these [rates] down," Seeman said. "It’s something that we will have to address and eventually make a decision on, but until we have all the information in front of us, we’re not quite sure."
And while the Town of Vienna has a history of providing "great" water service to its residents with quick maintenance operations, a deal that could send a lot of its operation to Fairfax County could be what it takes to bring those rates down, said Kelleher.
"I know the town ahs this tradition of having its own water system … and we don’t want to give that up," she said. "We have lots of wells in town that we could continue to use in emergencies and I support that."
"But somewhere down the road we’re going to have to invest money into our water infrastructure."