Staffing woes hinder­ movement on water meter list

Gladys Baisa

A shortage of engineers, difficulty recruiting and a lack of affordable housing are some of the reasons the county Department of Water Supply is struggling to fill staffing positions to help tackle the Upcountry water meter list, the department said Wednesday.

The Maui County Council’s Water Resources Committee spent Wednesday morning digging for solutions to the water meter list, a decades-old issue that now has 1,728 applicants and could take more than 20 years to get through.

For the department, funding isn’t an issue; it’s the lack of staff.

“Our problem is not at this point money,” acting department Director Gladys Baisa said. “It’s about bodies. It’s about people who can actually come and help us do the work. So the solution is, how do we recruit and retain people to jump into here? That’s the only way it’s going to happen.”

Two civil engineers are dedicated to reviewing the Upcountry water meter applications in “batches of 10 to 20,” explained Wendy Taomoto, engineering program manager for the department.

One round goes something like this: in January and February, staff members begin analyzing the first batch. In March, they start typing up letters detailing the requirements of installing water meters. For 20 applicants, that can mean sending out 60 letters, because one application can have multiple owners, Taomoto said. Once the letters are sent out around the beginning of April, applicants have 30 days to decide whether they’d like to accept water services or not.

The staff then repeats the process two more times throughout the year.

Taomoto said the department’s goal is to get through 60 applicants in 2018. Based on experience, she said she can’t ask her staff to go beyond 20 applicants per batch.

“Telling my staff to do more than 20 in a batch . . . is a detriment to the applicants because we may not be able to return every phone call, email and walk-in,” Taomoto said. “Once we get more staff, we could maybe increase that.”

In April, 23 applicants were offered water service and 12 accepted — a 52 percent acceptance rate. In October, 20 applicants were offered water service and nine accepted — 45 percent. Department staff said the rate usually ranges from 50 to 60 percent. Some decline because of the price installing water service. It can cost around $20,000 to hire an engineer, and engineering is only a fraction of the construction costs, Taomoto said.

But Council Member Kelly King wondered why, if so many people were declining services, the list was taking so long to get through.

Derek Takahashi, a civil engineer in the Upcountry district, said it’s because the department also is working on people who received meters, and people who are working to get their meters from years before.

“When the person finally gets their OK, their letter. They don’t automatically go out and get their own professionals,” Baisa said. “They tend to come back to us, . . . and they ask our engineers for a lot of work and a lot of help.”

Taomoto said she has been interviewing several applicants over the past year with no luck. The department currently has three openings, all for civil engineers, including one in the Upcountry district. Some candidates declined jobs because they got other offers. Others simply couldn’t find housing.

The department recently brought a civil engineer on board Dec. 11, but his job focuses on capital improvement projects, not the Upcountry list.

Taomoto said the county is offering candidates “near top step or at top step” positions, and that consultants have said the county’s rates are “pretty competitive.”

But in talking to applicants, Taomoto said the department has realized that “there’s not just a shortage (of engineers) on Maui, there’s also a shortage on the Mainland.”

One solution the county is considering is having a private contractor provide engineers who will train alongside department staff. Because the contract is still being reviewed, Taomoto couldn’t give the name of the company. She said it’s hard to find contractors. Most private engineering companies would rather avoid reviewing applications for the government because it could prevent them from submitting plans of their own, Taomoto said.

“Not all private engineers want to do this government review,” she explained. “They’d rather do the more exciting work, which is doing the designing of the systems for the government to review.”

Council Member Alika Atay, who chairs the committee, said there must be young local graduates who need engineering experience and could help the county through internships or other opportunities. Baisa said the department plans to contact the University of Hawaii “to make sure we are meeting with prospective engineers.” However, she said many local graduates are finding jobs and training on the Mainland, and they know how expensive housing is on Maui.

Atay added that he’d like to see more recruiting within the department.

“I think the serious consideration is increasing the budget for the staffing so we are competitive in getting the various engineers,” he said. “We’ve got to come up with a solution and a plan of how to serve more than just 60 a year.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.