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Taylor: Water rates, meter fees need to increase

WAILUKU – Proposed hikes in water rates and fees are coming, and a shortage of five engineers in the Department of Water Supply will probably mean there won’t be faster movement of applicants off the Upcountry water meter list, Water Director Dave Taylor told Maui County Council members Wednesday.

His remarks came during his annual department presentation before the council’s Water Resources Committee, chaired by Council Member Gladys Baisa. Taylor went over the department’s accomplishments, provided details of its proposed fiscal 2017 budget, funding requirements and managerial goals. Committee members took no action.

As for the hikes in water rates and fees, Taylor said it would be similar to those proposed in previous years. He called it a “moderate rate increase.”

Outside of the meeting, Taylor declined to disclose the proposed rates. He said he would leave the announcement to Mayor Alan Arakawa, who is set to deliver his budget proposal to the council on March 24.

Last year, Arakawa unsuccessfully proposed a 2.5 percent hike for water service fees, which include bills for water usage. He also sought to more than double the current water service development fee for a standard 5/8th-inch residential meter from $6,030 to $14,060, but the hike also failed to pass the council’s Budget and Finance Committee.

“We feel it’s the best way to generate the revenue we need. We are going to ask for it in the budget,” Taylor said of the rate and fee increases.

Taylor pointed out that Maui County is not alone among water departments in the state seeking higher rates to keep up with costs. On Oahu, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply had a 9.65 percent annual rate increase from 2012 to 2015. And on Kauai, the county’s water department raised its fee for a 5/8th-inch meter from $4,600 to $14,115.

“We know we have been raising rates. We know that is hard on the public,” Taylor said. But he noted that the water department’s fixed costs continue to rise.

The extra revenue could pay for capital improvement projects, maintenance and fixed costs that include employee salaries and debt service.

Baisa asked about the department’s progress in getting water meters to applicants still waiting on the Upcountry water meter list. She said she continuously gets asked about the list.

Taylor said normally 100 people get cleared from the list annually. There are 1,800 people still on the list waiting for a water meter.

Taylor predicted the department’s rate of moving people off the list would remain about the same. Last year, the department lost five engineers, and it’s actively recruiting replacements, he said.

Taylor attributed the loss to retirement and staff moving for various reasons. He added that it’s hard to recruit engineers when private-sector salaries are much higher than the county’s and when rail construction on Oahu has nabbed many young engineers out of college.

Knowing that the list only moves about 100 people a year, Baisa said, “it’s going to be a long, long, time. That’s not acceptable.”

The water department will be asking for funding this upcoming budget cycle for at least two Upcountry water system projects. They are the $2.8 million Pookela “B” exploratory well and the $2 million Upper Kimo chloramine retrofit.

Taylor touted the department’s accomplishments over the last four years and pointed to a list of at least 10 capital improvement projects that have been completed or are nearly completed. These include the Waikamoi flume replacement, Olinda Water Treatment Facility improvements and the Wailuku Well No. 1 development. He added that the projects increase and improve source development and reliability and in some areas are preventative measures for the future.

With the news about the Flint, Mich., water crisis where water was contaminated with lead, Taylor assured the committee and the public that there is “no rational reason that something like that can happen here.”

Our “number one priority is all water goes out safe,” he said. “It’s our number one priority every single day.”

Since Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. will end sugar operations this year, Council Member Don Couch asked if the county could receive water that has been used for sugar irrigation.

Taylor said there are pending legal cases surrounding HC&S water and those involving Na Wai Eha, or the four great streams of Central Maui. The cases could affect the amounts of water being taken by the county because it draws water from HC&S and its East Maui Irrigation system as well as from the Central Maui streams.

“We want to keep the water we have, (but) we would love to have more,” Taylor said.

He added that if the county were able to receive more water, the department would ask the council for money to design new projects.

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