HILO — Sewer fees will almost double for some and triple for others over the next three years under a plan the County Council advanced Tuesday to one final reading.
The fees haven’t been raised in 17 years, while costs to maintain the aging system continue to rise, said Environmental Management Director Bill Kucharski. He said even with the increases, Hawaii County will still have the lowest sewer rates in the state.
“My heart goes out to the people who have what for them is a significant increase,” Kucharski said. “Seventeen years is a long time. … You can kick the can down the road as long as there’s a road, and we’re running out of road.”
Several council members balked at charging the 18 percent of county households that are on sewer systems for the entire cost of trying to keep coastal waters clean. A more equitable option, they said, would be to pay for the systems partially through property taxes, or through the soon-to-be doubled general excise tax, if the state Legislature gives the counties more flexibility.
“It’s a matter of fairness ,” said Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung, who ultimately voted for the bill. “Who is bearing the cost of keeping our waters clean?”
The goal of getting all households off cesspools could cost upward of $800 million, Kucharski said. He said the cost of new sewer infrastructure is borne by all property owners, while ongoing maintenance falls to the users.
The council voted 7-2 to pass Bill 210 on first reading after an unsuccessful attempt by Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy to postpone the measure until the county could come up with alternatives. Lee Loy and Kohala Councilman Tim Richards were the sole “no” votes.
“What bothers me is, we keep going back to the same playbook, raise taxes and pay for things,” Lee Loy said. “We have a hammer and a nail. … I want to send a clear signal to the administration that this one solution of tax people to get money is not going to work.”
The current $27 monthly fee for single-family and multi-family residential units would increase to $39 monthly on March 1, $46 monthly in 2020 and $52 monthly in 2021, under the plan.
Nonresidential rates would increase from $22 monthly to $50 monthly March 1 to $59 monthly in 2020 and $66 monthly in 2021. Septic haulers’ rates will also increase for those who have septic tanks pumped.
The fee hikes would bring in an extra $17 million over the three years. They would start March 1, if approved. Kucharski wants to add 10 new positions to maintain and manage existing and planned facilities.
Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas said the council needs to differentiate between the short-term costs of maintaining the current systems and the long-term cost of getting residents off cesspools and septic tanks. She said she’s researching opportunities for grants to help defray some of the long-term costs, but in the meantime, the council needs to move forward.
“There are some opportunities here that are really exciting for our county,” Villegas said. “I am trying to do some due diligence here and find some bigger solutions.”
Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder said as a restaurateur, his company will be taking the threefold commercial hit on the fee. At the same time, he said, he recognizes the price of a hamburger isn’t the same now as it was 17 years ago.
Kanealii-Kleinfelder said he’d prepare an amendment to be considered during the final reading of the bill that would spread the hikes out over five years instead of three. The Environmental Management Commission, which has advisory authority but no authority to change bills, has already weighed in on that option.
“Extending the fee increases over a five-year period may on first blush seem fair and harmless,” Commission Chairman Richard Bennett said in a Jan. 23 letter to the council. “However, we advise the county to move forward to enhance sewer efficiency sooner rather than later. We further suggest a funding mechanism be explored to include all residents and visitors to support sewer operations that protect health, the oceans, property values and the economy.”