Union opposition keeps public works public: Public-private wastewater partnerships likely dead in Legislature

  • Inouye

  • Ramzi Mansour

Faced with new federal regulations and crumbling infrastructure, Hawaii County pinned its hopes on the private sector to help bail it out of a growing wastewater problem.

But bills creating public-private partnerships to go that route are all but dead in the state Legislature, after public employee unions lobbied against measures created on behalf of the county.


Senate Bill 997, sponsored by state Sen. Lorraine Inouye, a North Hawaii Island Democrat, would allow county governments to enter into private-public partnerships to transfer to, or enter a joint venture with, a private company to handle one or more wastewater treatment facilities.

The Senate bill cleared two of its three assigned committees Friday. But its chances of being heard in its final committee, Judiciary, are slim after the Judiciary chairman voted against the measure in one of the earlier committees.

The House version, sponsored by Rep. Nicole Lowen, a Kona Democrat, and others, was deferred after being heard at the first of three assigned committees.

Inouye said public-private partnerships are increasingly being used in state and local governments on the mainland as a way to pay for expensive public works projects. If the Hawaii Legislature isn’t going to allow it, then counties will have to raise taxes to pay for the needed work, she said. Inouye said she’d try to get some grant money for the county next year to help, and she urged the counties to apply for federal money as well.

“I’ll continue to support the counties in whatever way I can,” she said Wednesday.

County officials supported the bill as a way to handle ever-increasing price tags on needed sewer plants as the federal government bears down on clean water regulations that will eventually result in Big Island property owners being forced to move away from cesspools in favor of something more centralized.

“We’re limited. We cannot continue raising taxes, county Environmental Management Director Ramzi Mansour told the Environmental Management Commission on Wednesday. “We need to start thinking outside the box — how we’re going to generate revenue to offset those services.”

Ulupono Initiative, an investment firm focused on sustainability, supports efforts to increase diverse renewable energy resources, including the use of wastewater to support the production of renewable natural gas through methane capture, anaerobic digestion and other technologies, Micah Munekata, director of government affairs, said in testimony to the Legislature.

“By allowing county governments the ability to seek out private-public partnerships to support wastewater services, the state is providing a critical pathway for local government to upgrade and replace entire wastewater facilities in need of modernization,” he said.

As expected, the state’s public worker unions strongly opposed the measures.

“Public employees and your public workforce are not ‘logistical and structural issues’ to surmount, as our local workforce has and will continue to adapt when provided with the proper resources, training, and support,” said Randy Perreira, executive director of Hawaii Government Employees Association.

The new regulations come even as the few centralized sewer systems the county owns show the strains of age.

The cost of a 20-year-old plan to recycle wastewater to the R-1 level, allowing it to be used for most irrigation needs, has ballooned to $160 million, Mansour told a County Council panel earlier this month.


Meanwhile, the Hilo sewer plant in Keaukaha is “literally deteriorating,” in both the concrete building and pipes. Including the Hilo plant, three of the county’s oldest systems will need major repairs or replacement as they near the end of their useful life. Being located in corrosive atmospheres is expediting the aging process, Mansour said. Kulaimano wastewater treatment plant is almost 45 years old, Papaikou is nearing 37 years, and Hilo is nearing 30 years, he said.

The county is also under a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency consent order to replace two gang cesspools in Pahala and Naalehu.

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