WAILUKU - The Maui County Council on Friday sent back to committee for more review a bill that would give the water director, with the approval of the mayor, the authority to declare "water shortages" and to impose increased rates during the shortage period.
Council Member and Water Resources Committee Chairman Mike Victorino made the motion during the meeting, which was unanimously approved by a bare quorum of council members - Mike White, Stacy Crivello, Bob Carroll and Gladys Baisa. Council Members Elle Cochran, Don Couch, Don Guzman and Riki Hokama were excused, with Baisa saying several of the members were in Washington, D.C., attending meetings of the National Association of Counties.
Although the committee has had a "great deal of discussion" on the matter, Victorino still has been receiving many calls from constituents about the vagueness of the bill, the broad discretionary authority it gives the water director to impose the higher rates and other issues.
The bill had passed first reading by the council Feb. 15 and was set for second and final reading Friday in Council Chambers. The measure now will be taken up in the council's Water Resources Committee on March 13.
The bill would give the director of the Department of Water Supply, with the approval of the mayor, the power to declare "water shortages." The authority would cover not only drought conditions, but mechanical failure, human error and natural disasters.
It also would allow the county to charge higher rates during the water shortage period. The rate structure, meant to encourage conservation, has yet to be set by the council, which will consider it in the upcoming budget deliberations.
The bill also sets penalties for violators including removal of water meters and fines.
"We appreciate that the council recognizes the importance of this bill and will continue to work with them to help resolve any issues," said Water Supply Director Dave Taylor in an email following the meeting. "Because the water shortage bill requires a designated rate structure in the annual budget, there are no practical impacts of sending the bill back to committee, as long as the bill is passed before July 1st when the new budget takes effect."
Friday's action was taken just several days following a water department proposal to increase water meter fees and general water rates annually for the next decade. Last week in his State of the County address, Mayor Alan Arakawa proposed a 5 percent across-the-board water rate hike beginning next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Arakawa and water department officials say the increases are needed to maintain and expand the aging water system.
In his pitch to move the measure back to committee, Victorino said that his committee agrees that the County Code should address other water shortage issues that may occur other than drought, which the bill does.
Victorino expressed his concern that the bill does not have an accountability section, in which he would like to see the water department come back to the council after water shortages are declared. This would allow the council to see what is being done to remedy the problem and would give the public an idea of how long the declaration and the higher rates will last.
He also would like more clarity on the bill from the water department, including on the violations section.
Other members joined in supporting Victorino's motion, including Crivello, who acknowledged that most of what's in the bill is OK. Still, she would like to hear from the advisory water board on how it feels about the proposed bill.
A handful of testifiers made last-minute pitches to have the bill sent back to committee or deferred.
"I really believe this is unnecessary," said George Kaimiola, a foster parent, who said sometimes the number of occupants in his home can double at a moment's notice.
This means his water usage will go up, and he would be punished for his increased water use.
"I feel like I'm being penalized," he said.
He said that the water department should be looking to educate the public about conservation and seeking more water storage, not increasing rates.
Kaimiola also challenged the legality of the bill, saying that he believes there could be a state law restricting raising prices in times of emergency.
Tom Croly asked that the bill be deferred, saying that it will punish entities such as condominiums that have a lot of water users on one meter. While Croly, who sits on a condominium board, understood that the bill would not set the rates, he said by the time the council does set the higher rates it will be "too late" to stop the measure.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.