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Residents of the City of Fairfax are asking the City Council to exercise caution when making the decision of whether to get out of the water utility business and move ahead with an agreement that would, in effect, merge its water system into the Fairfax County-run utility, Fairfax Water.

“The water system has been a big part of what made it possible for us to be an independent city,” said Bob Reinsel, a lifelong city resident who said he tentatively supports the agreement.

The city would pay about $39 million to buy into Fairfax Water service but would sell assets of roughly equivalent value to Fairfax Water in order to raise the money needed for that fee, which includes selling its water treatment plant.

Mayor Scott Silverthorne is advocating for the deal, which he says would save the city tens of millions of dollars over the years while reducing water rates for the city’s water customers.

“The economies of running a very small water system have changed,” Silverthorne said.

He says the option of becoming a retail customer, meaning that Fairfax Water would take over all aspects of the city’s water system, was not something the city council considered a year ago when it initially decided to stay in the water business.

Pitching this deal to city residents, who tend to bring a healthy dose of skepticism to anything involving the county, can be a hard sell. At a community meeting last week, some residents wondered aloud what city services would be outsourced next.

“I understand the skepticism,” Silverthorne said. “We have great pride in being an independent city, but we’re really an interdependent city.”

The city already contracts with the county to run its schools and for other services, like sewage treatment. The jurisdictions share a jail and court facilities, and a social services agency.

Others at the community input session were concerned that they would be getting an inferior level of service from Fairfax Water, both in water taste and quality as well as quick responses to things like water main breaks.

“The water for me is not an issue of money,” said city resident Dimitri Klimenko. His chief concern is health.

While Fairfax Water’s treatment plant is more state-of-the-art than the city’s treatment plant, the city currently gets its water from Goose Creek, a Potomac River tributary. Fairfax Water gets its water from the Potomac and from the Occoquan Reservoir.

Klimenko said he is concerned that the water from the Potomac will have more contaminants than the city’s current drinking water.

City Director of Utilities Rick Thoesen tried to reassure Klimenko and others who expressed concerns about water quality.

“The water treatment plant at Fairfax Water is one of the finest in the world,” Thoesen said.

If the agreement moves forward, City of Fairfax residents can expect their water bills will stay flat for the next three years and then decrease to Fairfax Water’s rates.

City customers currently pay a minimum of about $24 per quarter for the first 5,000 gallons of water used, plus an additional $4.57 per 1,000 gallons beyond that. By comparison, Fairfax Water customers pay a base rate of $2.16 or $2.31 per 1,000 gallons, depending on when the account was established, with a higher rate for peak usage during the summer months.

City customers have been seeing annual increases of about 7 percent each year, as opposed to 3 percent on average for Fairfax Water customers.

City officials are also trying to reassure the more than two dozen two dozen city employees who work for the water department that they will still have jobs in the future.

“I realize the uncertainty is a little unsettling for our employees,” Silverthorne said.

The tentative agreement with Fairfax Water, which was negotiated through a federal court mediation process, stipulates that all current city water employees would be guaranteed jobs for the next three years and that, after that, it will depend on the needs of the organization.

A similar agreement is in place for the absorption of the City of Falls Church water system into Fairfax Water, according to Fairfax Water spokeswoman Jeanne Bailey.

“We wouldn’t anticipate getting rid of anybody,” Bailey said. “We’re still in the baby boomer exodus.”

Fairfax Water currently has 387 employees, about 100 of whom are eligible for retirement in the next five years, Bailey said.

The city council is continuing to accept public input about the proposal at every City Council meeting until its expected vote April 9. A second public meeting focused on the water issue will be at the Sherwood Community Center at 9 a.m. April 6.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com