Commentary: Bullying tactics may cost water customers dearly

Does the Frederick County Sanitation Authority (FCSA) have the right to steal water from the Town of Stephens City? That is the heart of the issue right now between the FCSA and the town. This issue affects every water customer in Frederick County, because the lion’s share of the county’s water supply comes from water that belongs to the town.

Make no mistake about this. The water belongs to the town’s citizens. The FCSA has let the contract permitting the leased extraction of water from the town’s quarries to expire. The FCSA claims that, because a contract once existed between the town and the FCSA, they have a “continuing right” to take our water without paying for it forever. Nonsense!
Twenty-three years ago, the town and the FCSA made a deal. The town would give the FCSA 3 million gallons of water a day (3MGD) from its quarries, and the FCSA would give the town a small discount on its bills. That agreement ran out in 2012. The town voluntarily gave the FCSA two more years under the same terms to give the parties time to negotiate a new agreement. The FCSA’s response? They stonewalled the negotiations, stole water, violated easements, submitted bogus bills, increased our rates, threatened to sue us and threatened to shut off water and sewer to the town’s customers.
Nobody likes a bully, and we don’t like these bullying tactics. The town hired an engineering consulting firm to review the bills and thus discovered that many of the FCSA charges were and are erroneous and that others are unsupported. Documented overcharges came to approximately $150,000. The consultant also discovered that the FCSA was stealing our water using a secret and illegal production well. The FCSA admitted in writing that in 2014 it secretly pumped 67 million gallons of the town’s water from the well.
On Aug. 7, the town shut down the FCSA’s illegal production well. This well was installed in secret, and its purpose was to avoid the 3MGD contractual limit. Apparently, documentation pertaining to the well has been “lost.” In their response to a FOIA request by the town, FCSA asserted that they have no contract for drilling the well, no RFP, no advertising, no permit, no public notice and no budget documents — items one would expect them to have for a recently installed well. The FCSA has since violated a cease and desist order and notice of trespass and furthered a zoning violation by re-engaging the water flow from the well. The town has also stopped paying the FCSA’s bills until the authority justifies its rate structure and addresses the overcharges.
This is not a “feud” as some have characterized it. This is a large and well-funded sanitation authority bullying a small town. The FCSA hasn’t told its side of the story because its position is indefensible. The FCSA’s answer? Hire a big Richmond law firm to intimidate a small, historic town with a substantial water supply.
 Let them! Currently, the FCSA claims the town owes them $267,000 for unpaid bills. FCSA owes us in excess of $373,000 for water withdrawn from town quarries just since March, based on a fair market price of $1 per thousand gallons, plus $67,000 for the water they overdrew, along with at least $150,000 in overcharges. And what about water they need in the future? County water customers may be in for a repeat of the lawsuit that FCSA unsuccessfully brought against Carmeuse Lime & Stone, which ended with FCSA paying about $1 per thousand gallons for water they once received at a very nominal charge.
Stephens City has remained willing to negotiate in good faith to reach an agreement to provide water and sewer services at reasonable rates to town residents  Frederick County residents as a whole. But, it’s virtually impossible to bargain with a bully.
In a society where nearly all of us feel like the little shepherd boy from Bethlehem, stepping out of obscurity before the gigantic, belligerent Philistine, the town holds tight to the five smooth stones in our pocket and stands ready to use them wisely to protect the interests of our citizens and coincidentally, Frederick County residents who depend on their water supply from the FCSA.
In closing, we advise county water customers to check their own water and sewer bills, and we ask them to contact their Board of Supervisors members, the governing body that created the FCSA, with their questions and concerns.
The Common Council of the Town of Stephens City consists of Mayor Mike Grim, Vice Mayor Ronald Bowers, councilmen Linden “Butch” Fravel, Joseph Hollis, Jason C. Nauman and Joe Grayson, and councilwoman Regina Swygert-Smith.