WAILUKU - The Maui County Council Budget and Finance Committee is considering deferring the mayor's proposed water service fee increases until it gets more input from the public.
"Across the board, no matter who I talk to or where I'm stopped, this (water fees) has become a real issue of the day," Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa said during the committee meeting Tuesday. "People have ideas and they have much different ideas than we have, and we've never heard them. What I'm afraid of is if we don't give them the opportunity to say so and we pass these, it's not going to be good."
She added that one of the leading concerns, especially for some Upcountry residents who have been waiting more than a decade for a water meter, is that it costs much more now to install a water meter than it did when residents first signed up 10 or 20 years ago. The county Department of Water Supply announced last week that it will begin issuing Upcountry water meters this week, and officials said Tuesday that they expect to issue "hundreds" this year.
"They feel fairness would be they pay what would be the cost when they signed up," Baisa said.
The cost to install a water meter doubled at the beginning of the current fiscal year in July from $6,030 to $12,060 for 5/8th-inch meters. Mayor Alan Arakawa has proposed increasing the water service development fee to $14,060 in the upcoming fiscal year and by another $2,000 subsequently until it reaches $20,000.
Council members are considering a bill that would exempt certain users, such as Molokai and some Maui residents, from having to pay the fee.
Monthly water service rates also are slated to increase by an average 6.5 percent in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
For example, a family of four in a single-family home with a 5/8th-inch water meter and water consumption of 16,000 gallons per month (which is assumed to be about average for a family that size), would see its water bill go up from $62.45 per month to $68.40 per month, according to the Department of Water Supply.
The total includes a service charge increase from $15 to $17.50. The charge for water consumption would go from $47.45 to $50.90.
There is no sewer fee rate increase proposed in Arakawa's budget.
Council members considered new funding models for the county's water system after a couple testifiers shared what they said were widespread and persistent concerns in their community.
"We need the time to go over this darn thing instead of just sliding it in someplace," Upcountry rancher Brendan Balthazar said in testimony Tuesday. "We need some public hearing so we can have input in these water and tax rates . . . before it gets crammed down everybody's throats."
Upcountry farmer Annette Niles agreed with Balthazar, adding that a number of residents urged her to represent them before the council Tuesday because they were unable to take off from work.
"It's sad, you have our local people wanting to get their water meters and they been working on it the last 15 years, and in the last 15 years we seen it go from grandfathering in, to $3,500 to $6,000 to now $12,000. Now it will be $14,000. I don't think that's right that you put that on the people," Niles said.
She suggested council members "remember the people that put you here" and to take the time to host a community meeting to vet residents' concerns.
It may be difficult to arrange a special public hearing on water rates in time, because the committee has only a few weeks to complete its review and revision of the budget before sending it to the full County Council for final deliberation. The council must pass a budget by June 10, as mandated by County Charter.
"There's all kinds of ways to deal with this," committee Chairman Mike White said. "We can try to deal with this during budget (session), which I'm willing to do. The other option . . . would be to go back to the $6,000 meter fee and allow the water committee to go, instead of just having one meeting during budget, have multiple meetings to see what various communities are feeling about the issue."
Water Supply Director Dave Taylor suggested that if the council were to decrease installation rates to 2012 levels of $6,030, there would be less money in the long term to be used for developing new water sources.
"We've tried to be as transparent as possible so no one is surprised by this debate and everyone has enough information to bring actual solutions to the table," Taylor said. "We're more than happy to be part of any more (public) hearings or discussions on this."
Baisa, who holds the Upcountry residency seat, suggested that the council consider appropriating money for water system improvements - instead of relying on water service fee hikes - the same way it does for capital improvement projects related to roadways, parks and other county facilities.
"Water is numero uno. I think we all know it's expensive; nothing's cheap. . . . (But) why would we not fund number one and we fund parks and playgrounds and all kinds of stuff? We need to put money in water, all the rest will follow."
The committee took no action on the water rates Tuesday.
The committee also has scheduled an evening public meeting to begin tonight at 6 at Paia Community Center.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at email@example.com.