WAILUKU - Mayor Alan Arakawa wants to hike water rates by 5 percent across the board, noting repairs and upgrades are long overdue on the county's aging water system.
Arakawa proposed the rate increase Wednesday evening during his State of the County address in the Baldwin High School Auditorium where he also told an audience of at least 250 people that the state of the county is good, with visitor arrivals up, low unemployment and with Maui County benefiting from low interest rates with the best bond ratings in the state.
He added that, on Tuesday, he met face to face with billionaire Larry Ellison, who owns most of Lanai, to discuss the Oracle Corp. co-founder's plans for the island. Those plans include a state-of-the-art water desalinization plant and a laboratory to develop computerized drip-control systems.
Mayor Alan Arakawa delivers his annual State of the County address Wednesday evening in the Baldwin High School auditorium in Wailuku. The mayor disclosed his plans to request a 5 percent increase in water rates, and he backed Eclipse Development Group’s plans for shopping complex projects in north Kihei, which could bring as many as 1,800 jobs.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Arakawa expressed a need to save the construction jobs for those waiting for Eclipse Development Group to move forward with its two retail centers and housing development in north Kihei. Those projects have been stalled over community objections to the state Land Use Commission that the current development plans went beyond what was originally presented to the state planning panel.
The mayor maintained that the projects could bring an estimated 1,800 long-term jobs to Maui, in addition to construction jobs to build out the developments.
In asking for a water rate increase, Arakawa said the county must continually invest in its water system to improve and maintain the valuable resource.
"Please remember that our current water system was put into service more than 80 years ago," he said. "These are repairs and upgrades that have been long overdue, and it will be another decade of work just to catch up."
He asked for the help of council members to assist the county with the catch up.
Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa said after the speech that she agrees with the mayor on raising water rates.
"Unfortunately, we are going to have to pay," she said.
County Council Water Resources Committee Chairman Mike Victorino said he doesn't want to raise water rates, but "it's needed."
"I hate to, but it's inevitable," he said.
The mayor's proposal to increase water rates comes as County Council members will take a final vote March 1 on a bill to allow the water director with approval of the mayor to declare a water shortage and to impose higher rates for Maui County residents in order to curtail water usage.
Arakawa told the crowd of county workers, government leaders and members of the public that he met Ellison on the Oracle chief executive officer's yacht off the coast of Lanai Tuesday, where he learned that Ellison's and Maui County's goals are similar.
"Like us, he is committed to developing clean renewable sources of energy for the community, wants to strengthen the visitor industry and improve local infrastructure and the overall quality of life for the people there," the mayor said.
Through Ellison's development of computerized drip-control systems, Arakawa said Ellison wants to irrigate organic farms throughout Lanai that will grow local produce and flowers.
Ellison, like Maui County, believes there is an agriculture market in Asia, especially for local fruits, Arakawa said.
"It turns out Larry Ellison is a big fan of mangoes," he said to laughter in the crowd.
Plans for Lanai also include a movie theater and a bowling alley with an old-fashioned ice cream parlor because "he thinks it will make the community happy," Arakawa said.
Although Arakawa said the state of the county is good, he acknowledged that it's not the best it's ever been, but better than a few years ago.
Economists agree, saying the county's economy is the strongest among Neighbor Islands, he said.
Arakawa added that Lanai's unemployment rate is at 1.5 percent, currently the lowest in the state.
Maui County's bond rating with Standard & Poor's is just below a Triple A rating, which allows the county to borrow money for projects and pay it back at much lower interest rates.
Arakawa thanked county workers and the community for persevering during the tough economic times.
Baisa and Victorino agreed with Arakawa's favorable assessment of the county's economy.
Victorino said he appreciated Arakawa noting that his administration, the County Council and the community all worked hard when the economy was down and played a role in keeping the county financially sound.
In the Kihei retail mall issue, Arakawa acknowledged there were people on both sides of the fence about the project, but he added the county believes the proposed project is in compliance with state and county land use designations, although the state Land Use Commission found current developers violated three conditions for development imposed in 1995 on the previous landowner, Kaonoulu Ranch.
Arakawa said the current developers can officially seek a modification of the original plans, but it would take a few months while construction workers are out of work and others might be out of work if more time passes.
"I'm not sure what can be done at this point, but we should work together to save these jobs, as well as the estimated 1,800 long-term jobs that this development would have brought to Maui," he said.
Arakawa also outlined the progress and goals of ongoing and future projects, including:
* Demolishing the old Wailuku Post Office to make room for a new county office building, saving the county millions of dollars in lease rent fees.
* Working on proposed projects that could either convert trash into a firm source of renewable energy or taking waste to produce a clean bio-fuel.
* Shortening the cycle of road repair and repaving from 40 to 50 years down to 20 years.
* Working on various water upgrades and repairs and drilling of new wells for West and Central Maui to improve the reliability of the water system.
* Exploring building a new Central Maui Aquatics Center.
* Breaking ground on the first phase of a Central Maui Regional Park Complex later this year.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.