Dream of water meter can come with nightmare of added costs
Most homeowners find they can’t afford water system improvements
Like many Upcountry residents, Sherman “Dudley” DePonte welcomed the day when his turn finally came for a water meter in 2014.
DePonte had hoped to subdivide his Kula property so his children could stay on Maui. But then he found out what he’d have to pay in improvements so he could install his meter — at least $3 million. He bought the meters but was never able to install them.
“The meter list is just a dream that they put up there so that you think you going get a meter,” DePonte said. “But when it comes down to it, you cannot afford it.”
DePonte’s story is one repeated throughout Upcountry, where residents eagerly reach the top of the long list only to discover that they can’t afford the roadwork or fire protection improvements needed to install their meters.
While the county has partially reimbursed homeowners for such improvements in the past, one bill introduced in the Maui County Council would put a cap on those reimbursements.
The bill went before the Water Resources Committee on Aug. 30 and was deferred. The measure proposes to reimburse a subdivider 50 percent of the cost of a water main extension, at a maximum of $100,000. Subdivisions that include 100 percent affordable housing would be reimbursed 50 percent with no cap. It’s more than previously suggested — an earlier version of the bill proposed by the department last year suggested up to $35,000 for family subdivisions and $25,000 for regular subdivisions.
“The current ordinance has no dollar limits and could cause a serious fiscal challenge as there is no defined revenue stream to offset possible expenses,” then-Water Supply Director Dave Taylor explained in a June 2017 letter to the council.
New Water Supply Director Gladys Baisa, who sent the committee a new version of the bill on Aug. 14, said at the meeting on Aug. 30 that the department’s annual budget for reimbursements “holds pretty firm at half a million dollars.”
Department records show that since 2009, county reimbursements to homeowners have totaled just over $1.2 million (which includes reimbursements promised in recent years that are still being repaid). The lowest reimbursement was $17,850, paid over a four-year period from 2011 to 2015. The largest reimbursement was $363,170, which was paid out from 2010 to 2014.
“Based on that information, we feel comfortable with the $100,000 limit,” Wendy Taomoto, engineering program manager with the department, said Thursday.
The looming possibility of a cap is what’s concerning to Sam Small, who lives along Piiholo Road and finally got his chance at a second water meter this summer. Small had been on the Upcountry water meter list for 16 years when the county offered him a meter in June. But like DePonte, Small discovered he would have to pay $1.5 million to upgrade the water main and install a larger pipe all the way to his property if he wanted to subdivide.
“I personally have to upgrade the entire water main across the frontage of 18 other properties between me and the source,” Small said. “I personally have to foot the bill for that entire roadway to be improved.”
Small had 30 days to respond and asked for a 30-day extension. But in the end, he decided it wasn’t worth it to pay a $3,800 deposit for a water meter that he couldn’t install. Although the county offers reimbursements, Small also didn’t want to take the chance of paying all the money up front and then hoping the county might approve him for reimbursement.
“This process of clearing the Upcountry water meter list is a very bogus process,” Small said. “They’re not actually trying to deliver water meters. They’re trying to get people off the water meter list.”
Small purchased his 5-acre property 18 years ago. He had always hoped to subdivide his land so he could build two houses and two ohanas.
“I thought 18 years ago that would be a pretty cool investment,” he said. “So to do that I needed a second water meter. . . . I was very excited when I got the letter. Then I found out it’s going to cost me $1.5 million to install it. I would never be able to make that money back, even if I built additional houses.”
Baisa could not be reached for comment Thursday. However, she acknowledged at the Aug. 30 committee meeting the Catch 22 that the issue has created — homeowners can’t afford to pay for the improvements but neither can the county. The department is caught between a rock and a hard place, Baisa said.
“Believe me, I totally understand what is going on here,” she told the committee. “I’m on that water meter list. I have children. I have property that I cannot divide so my kids can have affordable homes. So, you know, when I listen to the community I have that in me already.”
However, she added, “we don’t have unlimited dollars to give back.”
In 2010, the council — including Baisa who was a council member at the time — passed a bill that required applicants to “complete water system improvements to the premises and/or to the department’s water system,” provided they were necessary, according to the Maui County Code, or for fire protection, before installing a water meter.
When asked whether she felt the county or the homeowner should be responsible for improvements, Taomoto said it’s “not our job to feel one way or another. That’s the requirement.” Taomoto also said it’s up to homeowners whether they want to get other neighbors involved in paying.
“They can ask whoever they want, and that is up to them,” she said. “When they go to construction, we don’t see the contract between whoever is paying for it and the contractor.”
But it’s not for a lack of sympathy that some neighbors won’t pay. Richard Pohle was DePonte’s neighbor until he and his wife, Corintha, sold their Upcountry protea farm and moved to Pennsylvania earlier this year. Since 2003, when the Pohles got on the water meter list, they had moved from No. 675 to No. 472. Pohle said he would’ve helped DePonte pay if he could, but it just didn’t make sense being so far down on the list.
“Everyone on that line would benefit by Dudley’s $4 million (in improvements),” Pohle said. “But because of the meter list . . . and the slowness of the meter awarding, it means they’d put their money in and they’d never get their meter.”
Ultimately, the couple left Maui to be closer to family, but “the water meter issue prevented us from staying,” Pohle said.
DePonte, meanwhile, has been trying to seek a variance for the fire protection improvements he’s required to make. He bought his 2.5-acre property in 1992 with the hopes of subdividing into four lots for his children and grandchildren. Now, to install the three meters he bought “on a gamble” when his number came up, he’d need to pay $3.1 million (up to $4 million by some estimates) to install 3,000 feet of 8-inch line, expand to a 120,000-gallon water tank and purchase easements from his neighbors.
“I’m fifth generation Portuguese,” said DePonte, the 63-year-old owner of Akamai Land Surveying. “My great-grandfather put in money to put in the line from Waikamoi to here. My grandmother’s brothers all helped dig and put that line in. Here I am again now . . . three generations down, and we’re doing it again.”
DePonte said he thinks the $100,000 cap is “ludicrous.”
“None of the Upcountry people that’s on that list is asking for anything more than what they were zoned for,” he said.
Other Upcountry residents share DePonte’s frustration. In a Maui News letter to the editor printed on Aug. 26, Kula residents Charles and Linda Chandler said they were one of 43 applicants offered an upgraded water meter in 2017, after being on the list for 17 years. They were “elated,” but then found out they’d need to pay an estimated $1.7 million to upgrade the county water transmissions lines from over a mile and a half away to their home.
The Chandlers had to decline the meter and were removed from the list. They were frustrated with the changes to water meter requirements that Baisa was involved in.
“Now, as director, she touts that progress on clearing the list,” the Chandlers wrote. “Yes, by removing individual applicants who cannot afford to upgrade county infrastructure.”
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.