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Water authority seeks to stop Stephens City services, wants damages

The Frederick County Water Authority is asking the Frederick County Circuit Court to approve the authority’s decision to suspend water service to Stephens City and about 2,000 residents.

Eric Lawrence, Executive Director for Frederick Water, said the catalyst for filing seven counter claims recently in Circuit Court was to protect the authority, as it was coming up on the legal three-year statute of limitations to make those requests and would soon not be able to do so.

One of those claims was a request for “a declaratory judgment to suspend water service,” according to court documents.

The authority, if given court approval, is  prepared to move forward and turn off the tap, which Lawrence said was legal by Virginia law.

“They have not paid us in three years nor do they have the money to pay us. They eliminated us from their budget,” Lawrence said of  Stephens City.

The authority provides water and sewer services to Stephens City.

The town’s financial records  provided as part of the lawsuit do not show where town administrators have set up an account to deposit the money collected from water bills sent to residents over the three years, he said. Lawrence estimates that account would have more than $1 million in it.

The town also has not budgeted to pay the authority for future services.

That sent a message to the authority that the town had no intention of making any payments to them for past or future service, Lawrence said. The authority appears to be the town’s biggest creditor.

Altogether, the Water Authority alleges in the lawsuit that the town owes it $5.78 million for water and wastewater services, he said.

“They have been touting for a year that they would use Winchester city water, and we invite them to do that,” he said.

Mike Majher, town manager for Stephens City, said they have not been in recent talks with Winchester and there is no backup plan to deal with a stoppage in water service.

“But it is not that easy to just shut off water to a town. The Department of Health gets involved before you cut off water to 2,000 people. It’s a safety issue, if a home catches fire, your fire department has to be able to put it out,” Majher said.

“This is disappointing to see. We have said we are willing to sit with them and talk outside of court,” Majher added.

Majher said the town met with its attorney Friday, and they will soon be drafting a response to the authority’s claims.

As far as the allegations involving any money and accounts,  Majher said he is not sure what Lawrence is talking about. The town has put the money it has collected into a utility fund. Whatever is not spent on utility expenses remains in that account, he said.

Majher confirmed the town has not been paying the Water Authority but the Water Authority has not been paying the town for the water the authority pulls from disputed reservoirs the town claims to control.

“At this point, they owe us more than we owe them,” Majher said.

That is to be determined by the court.

The circuit court ordered the Frederick County Water Authority to answer in full questions presented to it by the town, including explaining in detail how the Water Authority calculates and determines its bills, Majher said. The town has been seeking that information for a long time, alleging the Water Authority has been over billing.

The authority is also asking the court to appoint a special receiver who would take charge of any money held by Stephens City for water and wastewater services, according to court documents. The receiver would also implement procedures to ensure timely billing, collection and payment.

Stephens City filed the lawsuit against the Water Authority in 2015 asking for $10 million in damages. Stephens City entered into an agreement Dec. 9, 1991 to allow the county to use 3 million gallons a year of the town’s water supply, which is stored in three reservoirs. This was in exchange to cover the cost the county incurred in the building of a new water treatment plant. The reservoirs are within the Public Water Supply Protection District.

Town administrators and Town Council members believed the term was to be for no more than 20 years. The county is arguing the agreement was in perpetuity.

The authority filed a counter suit seeking $5.78 million in damages.

Bob Wells is on the Frederick County Board of Supervisors and lives in Stephens City.

Wells said the Board of Supervisors has no jurisdiction over the Water Authority or its actions but is kept informed.

He did, however, speak during an interview as a Stephens City resident about his opinion on whether the request to shut off the water caused him concern.

“As a resident of Stephens City, I wish it would get settled. I wish cooler heads would prevail,” Wells said.

The next court date is 9:30 a.m. April 25.

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