Water rate plan a concern for farmers, others

Organizations representing Maui farmers and hotels expressed concern Thursday about Mayor Alan Arakawa’s proposal to hike water rates by 5 percent, saying the rate increase will affect their bottom lines.

“I think it’s something we have to look at,” said Warren Watanabe, executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau, who was responding to Arakawa’s proposal during his State of the County address Wednesday evening.

“I think the critical thing, if this 5 percent is approved, there needs to be some assurance the system will be improved as the mayor says. . . . As long as improvements are made, hopefully it’s OK,” he said.

While he recognizes the need to repair the aging water system, Watanabe said that the cumulative effect of all the price increases hitting farmers, from the state Legislature looking to raise the minimum wage to the increasing prices of supplies and other services, make it difficult for farmers and ranchers to cover their costs.

“If it keeps on getting wider (between profits and expenses), it will be difficult to stay in business.” he said.

Lisa Paulson, executive director of the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association, said she hasn’t received any calls from her members about the proposed water rate increase as of Thursday afternoon but added that “we will be weighing in” when the proposal is before the County Council.

“Anything that reduces (hotel and lodging) profitability is going to be a concern to (members),” Paulson said.

On Thursday, Arakawa’s office reiterated what the mayor said in his address that the rate increase is needed across the board to make repairs and upgrades to the aging system that are long overdue.

In response to an email from The Maui News, water director Dave Taylor said Thursday that the revenue generated from the rate increase will be used for operational costs, “primarily for increased electricity due to anticipated Upcountry demand, increasing electrical prices overall, increased debt service due to projects initiated in previous years.

“These projects are under way to prevent future system failures.”

If the 5 percent increases are approved by the County Council, Taylor said it would bring in an estimated $2.5 million a year.

In the county’s tiered water rate system, Taylor said that for the first two tiers of rate payers/water users their costs still are lower than the actual cost of service.

“Proposed rate increases for these tiers are very small,” he said.

County spokesman Rod Antone said the county does not want to increase water rates for users, but it’s something that’s direly needed.

“If people think we want to raise prices, that’s the last thing we want to do. (The county is) trying to maintain the system now so there isn’t a big break so an entire community doesn’t run out of water,” Antone said.

The increases are being done now so that the public doesn’t end up with a bigger bill later, he added. When asked about increasing rates when people are just getting back on their feet economically, Antone replied: “The increases have to be done.”

The mayor could have done the increases after re-election, but “really do you want that kind of mayor that hides things, that tries to paint a rosy picture?”

“He wants to be honest with the people,” he said.

Although Arakawa announced the proposal to increase water rates by 5 percent Wednesday, his administration had said publicly last year that 6- to 8-percent increases in rates were possible this upcoming fiscal year so that upgrades could be made to aging systems and more water meters could be issued.

Paul Laub, a veteran who is active in veterans and senior citizens organizations, said he doesn’t think the 5 percent increase will have much of an impact on older people, noting that older people do not use much water. He did recognize, though, that “gardening is really important to older people.”

But Laub said he agrees with Arakawa.

“We have a lot of stuff that we have to do for our infrastructure, to keep it going. . . . If we get negative feedback, we have some problems, those things can be identified,” he said of the proposal.

Arakawa’s office on Thursday also corrected a portion of his address, which said that the actual cost of a water meter had risen from $3,000 to $6,000. The statement should have read that in most cases the cost of water meters (5/8 inch) has gone from $6,000 per meter to $12,000.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.