KAILUA-KONA — The Environmental Management Commission on Wednesday sent the Hawaii County Council a positive recommendation on a measure that would nearly double sewer fees over the next three years.
Bill 210 will now head back to the council with two more votes to clear before becoming law.
Dr. Richard Bennett, commission chair, gave voice to why he believes a measure that’s been met with public resistance is both necessary and misunderstood.
“I think everybody in our county is concerned about the quality of our environment, especially the oceans,” he said. “And yet that’s going to translate into greater investment on their part. Have we done a good enough job of making that connection for people?”
His question was answered the same by both himself and Department of Environmental Management (DEM) Director Bill Kucharski — no.
Potential passage of the measure has proven controversial for two reasons. Firstly, in three years time, families would be paying an extra $300 a year for their sewer connections as the bill would raise monthly fees on residential units from $27 to $52 incrementally beginning with a bump to $39 on March 1.
Second is the way the measure is framed — as a way to protect the ocean from harmful pollution. Except it’s the county’s 50,000 cesspools causing the most damage to nearshore waters, and some who are already paying for a sewer connection are asking why the burden should fall only to them?
The fee hike, which would include an increase in nonresidential rates from $22 to $66, would raise $17 million over the next three years, freeing the DEM’s sewer operations and maintenance budget from dependence on the county’s general fund.
It currently draws about $3 million annually from the fund, which is primarily filled by property taxes. Continuing to do so is a way to spread the cost burden more equally among all taxpayers.
And the bump to $52, which Kucharski pointed out would be the first since 2002 and would still register as the lowest sewer connection fees across the state, would allow DEM to hire another 10 employees to aid in management and maintenance of facilities both planned and currently operational.
Both the money and the manpower would be helpful in avoiding line breaks like the one that occurred on Alii Drive in June of 2017, to which Bennett alluded Wednesday.
Still, it took the commission two votes to agree on the positive recommendation as only five members of the nine-seat committee were present. That meant a unanimous decision was required. Two members, Luana Neff and Rick Gaffney, were absent, and two of the nine seats are currently vacant.
Commission members Dee Fulton and Justin Pequeno initially abstained over various concerns. Fulton said she was unsure because she was under the impression farmers would pick up an inordinate amount of the fees due to greater water consumption.
Kucharski explained the fees are flat and not connected to water usage, swaying Fulton to a yes vote.
Pequeno said he initially abstained to protect those connected to county-managed gang cesspools, who would share in the fee burden because DEM ensures flow in the case of a backup or blockage.
Pequeno expressed concern that not only would those residents pay increased fees over the next three years, but they will be responsible for a costly conversion to a sewer line or septic system down the road as the county is under mandate to close all 50,000 of its cesspools by 2050.
Kucharski explained the county will be picking up the conversion tab for those on gang cesspools, allaying Pequeno’s concern and making the commission’s vote on a positive recommendation for Bill 210 unanimous.