HILO — Some Naalehu residents who haven’t been paying their sewer bills have found themselves slapped with fines and penalties, and even warrants taken out against them.
Eight lawsuits in small claims court in Kona have led to some paying their bills, but others have not. Residents’ sewer bills are $18 a month as of April 1, up from $15 previously.
“Some of the people are stating that since they’re not getting sewer service, there shouldn’t be a charge, but it costs money for the maintenance of the existing system,” county Environmental Management Director Bill Kucharski said Monday. “All of our sewer rates are in the code passed by the County Council. … It’s not something that was just whimsically imposed upon the people of Naalehu.”
Kucharski said the eight lawsuits were those of 13 households since 2010 that didn’t pay their bills after being notified by county Corporation Counsel. That’s almost 10% of the 143 accounts in the area.
The community, which includes 160 houses on gang cesspools, will be transferred to a new $40.5 million sewer plant that’s currently in the process of getting an environmental assessment. It’s proposed to be built makai of the Naalehu Hongwanji.
One family living in the former plantation camp ended up with a $1,910 judgment once $695.63 in interest, an $85 service fee and $24 for the process server’s mileage were added to the tab on a $1,104.59 past-due bill. Others have similar experiences, according to court records.
Bench warrants have been issued for those who don’t appear in court.
Jerry Warren, who lives in the old plantation camp, said he has a 2004 letter signed by Mayor Harry Kim saying residents on the gang sewer won’t have to pay until a new system is installed. Kim in March signed a bill approved by the council raising sewer rates, including those for gang cesspools.
Warren said the current gang cesspool is illegal and unlicensed and residents shouldn’t have to pay.
“It’s extortion and it’s mail fraud to be sending out (these) extortion bills,” Warren said. “We need a lawyer to file a class action suit and get all of our money back.”
The community was given a ballot to chose their preference for the new system and they chose a septic tank system, Warren said. Kucharski said subsequent tests showed the septic system wouldn’t work there, leading to the more expensive plant design.
Meanwhile, in Environmental Court, a lawsuit was filed last year by Sandra Demoruelle and is currently in the motions stage, with an evidentiary hearing held earlier this month.
Demoruelle, who is representing herself, seeks to stop both the Pahala and Naalehu sewer project development funding and all contractor activities until completion of the environmental review process. That includes acceptance of the environmental assessment or environmental impact statement and continuing oversight of the court order until the FEA/FEIS for Pahala and Naalehu are accepted.
Demoruelle, who lives in Naalehu but not in the plantation camp, claims in her lawsuit the county didn’t follow the proper procedure. Sites were being evaluated and technologies chosen without publication of a plan for public input.
“They don’t want to put all options on the table; they just want their option on the table,” she told the newspaper Monday.
A county corporation counsel attorney didn’t respond to a telephone message by press-time Monday.
The county is under a consent order with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to close the gang cesspools in Naalehu by 2022 because the cesspools, which basically send the waste to a hole in the ground, lead to groundwater contamination and increase the risk of ocean pollution.