Water talk focuses on sources — of funding

At least two main ideas vied Tuesday night as ways for Maui County to raise the millions of dollars needed over the next 20 years for water system improvements, with the most costly being for waterlines, pumps and reservoirs to supply water to drought-plagued Upcountry residents, farmers and ranchers.

Department of Water Supply Director Dave Taylor’s plan, which he called a “balanced approach,” is to raise annual rates for water consumption by around 6 percent and then continue charging $12,060 for a new 5/8th-inch water meter, raising that $2,000 each year until it reaches $20,000.

That would raise enough money to pay off the debt service for bonds the water department would float for the $30 million to $40 million in water system improvement projects planned over the next 20 years.

Taylor stressed that the water department is self-funded, getting all of its money from rates and fees. It gets no funds from property taxes.

The other idea, advanced by most of the dozen or so residents to testify before the County Council Budget and Finance Committee before its 7:30 break Tuesday night, was to shift the cost of paying for loans from water rate payers to the county’s general fund, which generates revenue from property taxes.

Upcountry rancher Brendan Balthazar of the Diamond B Ranch said Taylor has “blinders on” in refusing to consider other alternatives, like getting money from the general fund. Balthazar pointed out that the county floats bonds for park improvements, but why not water infrastructure?

“Water should be elevated to the most important thing,” he told committee members.

And, he said, everyone should help pay for the water development fee, not only those people seeking water meters. Balthazar added that family subdivisions should get a break from paying the cost, which can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, not counting the water meter fee cost, to bring waterlines to properties.

Upcountry resident and rancher Edwin Ferreira said he owns 6 acres Upcountry on which he raises some cattle and hopes someday to pass on to his grandchildren for their homes.

But he said that if water meters cost $20,000 or more each, “it will surely prevent my family members, my grandchildren, from ever enjoying their own piece of property. . . . (Then) my grandchildren cannot afford to live on the acreage that I have. It’s really sad.”

Ferreira suggested charging everyone with a water meter in Maui County around $10 to help pay for water improvements. There are about 35,000 water meters in the county.

“Set that aside for upgrading the infrastructure,” he said.

He also urged county officials to invest in reservoirs.

“You build it right. It will never fail,” he said.

Budget Committee Chairman Mike White said he was considering a proposal to add an amount, perhaps $10 per month, to the monthly water meter fee paid by everyone with county water meters. That could then be used to reduce the current $12,060 charged for new water meters, he said.

“We will look at that,” he said.

White said he’s also interested in considering helping people with small parcels Upcountry get a break on new water meters to clear the way for construction of affordable housing.

After several testifiers brought up the idea of floating a general obligation bond, which would be paid off with property taxes, Council Member Don Couch raised an issue about the Maui County Charter, which provides that the water department should be self-sustaining.

The charter says the department’s revenues shall be kept in a separate fund to make it self-sustaining, but it also says “the council may issue general obligation bonds on behalf of the Department of Water Supply and may provide capital improvement appropriations for the department.”

Makawao farmer and rancher Roland Perreira said that he’s just starting out in business and “every little bill . . . will push us backward.”

Before raising water rates and fees, “please take a long look at this and please repair what needs to be repaired before hitting us with a big bill,” he said.

Taylor said his department’s proposed water rates and fees are “not fines and not random” but were drafted to pay for water system improvements countywide.

“They are built to accomplish these goals that the community wants,” he said. “Revenues have to equal expenditures.”

Infrastructure needed for Upcountry water development is the main driver behind proposed increases in water rates and meter fees.

The water department will need to “generate some revenue like we’ve never seen before. . . . (or) there’s really no way to pay for this,” meaning new Upcountry water meters and improvements, Taylor said.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.