Water Board awards top DWS officials with raises

  • Department of Water Supply Manager-Chief Engineer Keith Okamoto talks about the broken wells at a community forum in July at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Manager-Chief Engineer Keith Okamoto and Deputy Kawika Uyehara of the Hawaii County Department of Water Supply both received pay raises after what was arguably the department’s most tumultuous year in recent memory.

DWS spokesperson Kaiulani Matsumoto confirmed the Hawaii County Water Board at its first meeting of the year Tuesday approved 8 percent raises for each man, which were retroactively applied to take effect as of Jan. 1.

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Water Board Chairman Craig Takamine said Okamoto earned around $121,000 last year, while Uyehara pulled down roughly $110,000.

The board reviewed the salaries of other industry employees across Hawaii to help determine applicable raises, but Takamine said the decision was actually tied more to each man’s performance during a difficult year plagued by deep well equipment failures across the North Kona region.

“It’s well-documented what happened in 2017 in North Kona, but what a lot of folks don’t see is what these guys do behind the scenes,” said Takamine, noting the long hours and taxing nature of the jobs. “We did an evaluation late last year … and they actually scored really well. They had high marks on the board. We feel like they’re doing a great job.”

Customers in North Kona spent 362 consecutive days under a mandatory water usage restriction from January 2017-January 2018, which at its most modest called for a 25 percent consumption reduction and at its harshest called for a halt on all non-commercial irrigation, limiting residential water use to basic necessities of life and hygiene only.

The restriction was downgraded to a 10 percent voluntary conservation on Jan. 9.

Perhaps a low point for DWS came in October, when Okamoto declined to inform the public that two deep wells fell offline only days before the Ironman World Championship, which draws tens of thousands of visitors to Kailua-Kona. The failures brought the number of offline wells up from two to four. It was a decision Mayor Harry Kim said publicly he didn’t support.

The department didn’t disclose the information on the two well malfunctions for almost a month, doing so only after a West Hawaii Today inquiry on the matter.

Still, Takamine praised DWS officials over the course of the crisis, commending them for keeping water flowing to all North Kona accounts despite setbacks that left five of the region’s 13 water sources simultaneously inoperative on two separate occasions.

When asked if the Water Board considered forgoing raises for DWS brass after discussing public perception around the situation in North Kona, Takamine stood resolute behind the value he said Okamoto and Uyehara provide the department.

“I think there are folks that may have thought that, but we also had to consider what their value is to the department,” he explained. “I think we just really tried to be fair, and I think 8 percent is fair.”

Takamine said after applying the raises to current salaries, the highest paid civil servant within DWS is paid only $1,000-$2,000 less annually than Okamoto and still makes more than Uyehara.

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“The Deputy is getting paid much less than an employee that he manages,” Takamine said.

Okamoto didn’t return a message seeking comment as of press time on Tuesday.