Council approves sewer fee hikes

  • Signage warning the public to keep out of the water was placed in 2017 at several Hilo Bayfront locations after an estimated 41,000 gallons of untreated sewage spilled into the Wailuku River and Hilo Bay from a blocked sewer pipe. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)

HILO — The first sewer fee hike in 17 years squeaked through the County Council on a 5-4 vote this week, but only after it was amended to spread the cost over five years instead of the three requested by the administration.

Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder, who wrote the amendment, likened the extension of the hikes that will almost double sewer fees for some and triple them for others to stepping slowly into a hot tub rather than jumping in all at once.

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“We’re trying to account for the mistake the county made by not raising rates for 17 years,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said. “It’s not our fault, but it is the county’s fault for not doing that. … But it does become our responsibility to get us where we need to be. … These rates seem like a nice slow step into something.”

Under the plan, the current $27 monthly fee for single-family and multi-family residential units would increase to $35 April 1, then progress to $40 in 2020, $44 in 2021, $48 in 2022 and $52 in 2023.

Nonresidential rates would increase from $22 monthly to $34 April 1, then continue increasing to $42 in 2020, $46 in 2021, $50 in 2022 and $54 in 2023.

Gang cesspools would increase from $15 monthly to $18 April 1, then to $20 in 2020, $22 in 2021, $24 in 2022 and $25 in 2023. Septic haulers’ rates will also increase for those who have septic tanks pumped.

The goal of the increases, said Environmental Management Director Bill Kucharski, is to wean the Wastewater Division off the general fund, which is funded primarily by property taxes, so it becomes self-sufficient. Extending the three year period to five years means an additional $10 million draw from the general fund over the next five years, he said.

“That $10 million has got to be made up in some way if we are going to get off the general fund,” Kucharski said. “I’m not in opposition to this. I just wanted to explain what the ramifications are to the department. … It’s going to take longer, but its doable.”

All council members voted yes Wednesday on the extension of the time period during final council action on Bill 210, then four members voted no on the amended bill: Hilo Council members Aaron Chung and Sue Lee Loy, Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz and Kohala Councilman Tim Richards.

Opponents, fresh from voting on a general excise tax increase earlier in the day, cited the need to take a look at the county budget as a whole instead of piecemeal raising taxes and fees. Several also questioned why the burden of clean water falls on the 18 percent of households on sewer systems when more environmental damage comes from those not on sewer systems.

The Hilo wastewater plant, for example, is using only 2.2 million gallons of its 5 million gallon capacity. If more people were on a sewer system, the per-unit rate wouldn’t have to be so high, Chung said.

“I really think we should start to develop a really serious plan on sewering the rest of our island as much as possible,” Chung said. “I want every property to be on a sewer system. It’s just right now because of the low numbers of people on these sewer lines, I just find it hard for me to vote in favor of assessing them a higher amount than the people who are polluting our island.”

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Kanealii-Kleinfelder said all the council members have the same goal.

“We are trying to take care of our island as a whole,” he said. “We live in a gorgeous place surrounded by pristine waters and it’s only in times when we have brown water advisories and sewage being dumped in the ocean and rivers that this comes to light.”

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