A state Senate bill that would have given out-of-town residents some protection against soaring water and sewer rate differentials died Feb. 1 during a General Assembly committee hearing.
The 6-6 vote in the state Senate’s Committee on Local Government came just hours after Loudoun County supervisors on Jan. 31 agreed to support Senate Bill 1475 despite strong objections from Leesburg Town Council members.
The bill, introduced in the General Assembly Jan. 21 by Sen. Mark Herring (D-eastern Loudoun) and Del. Joe May (R-western Loudoun), if passed, would have required supervisors to approve any increase proposed by Leesburg in the percentage difference between water and sewer rates charged to Leesburg customers and the rates out-of-town customers pay. The rule would apply to any increase beyond the percentage differential established as of Jan. 1.
Loudoun supervisors voted 6-2-1 to get behind the legislation.
“It seems to me what [the bill] does do is give a little bit of comfort to those who live out of town who have been threatened, and there for a while operated under a 100 percent rate differential,” said Supervisor Sally Kurtz (D-Catoctin).
“No one is trying to stop them from making a profit, but, my god, how much profit do you have to have off of one part of your customer base,” Kurtz said Jan. 26, speaking of the higher rates for out-of-town customers.
Supervisors Kelly Burk (D-Leesburg) and Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling) voted to not support the bill, saying the county shouldn’t interfere with Leesburg Town affairs.
Burk said the legislation has too many problems.
“First, it takes what is a town responsibility and moves that responsibility to the board of supervisors,” she said. “We don’t even vote on our own county water rates, but now we’re looking to tell a lawful body ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ as to how much they may charge for a differential rate for customers outside of town.”
Burk, who served as a Leesburg Town Council member when they voted for an increase in the differential rate structure. At the time, she was the only member then to vote against the measure.
The proposed bill comes on the heels of years of dispute between the Town of Leesburg and out-of-town residents.
The Town of Leesburg in December 2005 doubled its water and sewer rate differential for out-of-town customers to 100 percent.
Months later, a group of out-of-town residents and homeowners’ associations sued. In spring 2009, Loudoun County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Horne sided with out-of-towners, saying the differential was unfair. Leesburg lowered the differential to 47 percent after Horne’s ruling in order to comply.
However in November the state Supreme Court ruled that under state law the increased water and sewer rates to out-of-town customers is fair.
Following the ruling, Leesburg Mayor Kristen Umstattd proposed charging out -of-town customers a surcharge in addition to doubling their rate differential. However, the council left the differential at 47 percent.
The rate differentials have been hard on out-of-town customers’ wallets, they said.
“The bills that I have seen as a father of four in my household over the last six years are just astronomical and I look for some support from the board so I have some recourse to the rate structure that I’ve been under for that long,” Paul Kohl, a resident of Lansdowne, said. “I’ve spent in excess of $14,000 in water in the last five and a half years just to simply wash clothes, bath kids, try and keep my lawn a little bit green and not much else.”
Leesburg Town Council members asked for Loudoun supervisors patience, saying the municipality is working on several initiatives to address out-of-town residents’ concerns.
The council is still reeling from what they view as a betrayal by Herring and May. The council believed that keeping the differential at 47 percent would help them avoid state legislative action.
“[This] makes a process that was already over-politicized, extremely politicized,” Vice-Mayor Kevin Wright said in a town council meeting Jan. 25.
“This council has worked very hard to set a very positive tone, and, to the extent that this piece of legislation only serves to increase tension, it’s very detrimental to all of us,” council member Katie Sheldon-Hammler said.
“Why am I upset at losing the authority to do something I don’t want to do anyway? [Because] this bill ... reduces the legislative authority of the town,” councilman David Butler said.
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