KAILUA-KONA — The Hawaii County Department of Water Supply took the first step toward augmenting its existing staff by proposing the addition of 19 new positions at the Water Board’s monthly meeting Tuesday in Hilo.
DWS Manager-Chief Engineer Keith Okamoto told the board the department currently employs just over 160 people. A decade ago, that tally was closer to 180.
While retirement and attrition have scaled back departmental ranks organically, an increase in population has led to more customers and expanded services. Okamoto said situations involving the Keauhou Aquifer System and the North Kona deep well crisis have further exposed the need for more workers.
“We’ve been able to get by. I don’t think we need to balloon back up to 180 at this point, but I think we still want to stay within that 160-170 range,” he said. “For the past number of years we’ve been pretty much doing more with less.”
If approved, not all the positions would be filled right away, and some may never be filled at all. The department is, however, interested in filling three positions within the Operations Division and Communications Branch with relative immediacy.
“We basically fill for the need, not just because there’s a position available,” Okamoto said.
DWS is also interested in other changes to its table of organization. For instance, the department can’t recruit for a position it knows will become vacant until the position actually is vacant — a stipulation DWS hopes to eliminate.
The process of adding jobs begins with Water Board approval followed by DWS meetings with relevant unions and officials at the Hawaii County Human Resources Department, which aids DWS in recruitment efforts. Once recruitment for a position is justified and approved by both DWS and the county, the department can begin its search.
Total cost for adding and filling the proposed positions remains undetermined but won’t come out of county coffers, DWS spokesperson Nyssa Kushi wrote in an email to West Hawaii Today.
“The associated costs for all positions (filled and those expected to be filled) are, or will be, included in the department’s annual operating budget, which is based on revenues from water sales only,” Kushi explained. “The Department of Water Supply is a semi-autonomous agency that does not receive funding from the county.”
The Hawaii County Finance Department confirmed the county supplies zero funding for DWS employee salaries, benefits and pensions. As ratepayers, however, members of the public — save for those living on catchment — ultimately fund the department’s operating budget and, by extension, the cost of employees.
DWS’ operating budget for fiscal year 2019, approved Tuesday, is $53,864,000.
Rates are determined by rate studies. The last rate study was conducted in 2015 when 5 percent rate increases were scheduled for fiscal years 2019 and 2020. The next rate study will be conducted two years from now.