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Water Board approves raises for top DWS officials

  • LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii Today file photo County Department of Water Supply Manager-Chief Engineer Keith Okamoto speaks during a community forum in July at the West Hawaii Civic Center in Kailua-Kona.

KAILUA-KONA — Manager-Chief Engineer Keith Okamoto and Deputy Kawika Uyehara of the county Department of Water Supply each received pay increases.

DWS spokesperson Kaiulani Matsumoto confirmed that the Hawaii County Water Board, during its first meeting of the year Tuesday, approved 8 percent raises for each man, which were retroactively applied to take effect as of Jan. 1.

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Water Board Chairman Craig Takamine said Okamoto earned about $121,000 last year, while Uyehara earned roughly $110,000.

The board reviewed the salaries of other industry employees throughout the state to help determine applicable raises, but Takamine said the decision was actually tied more to each man’s performance during a difficult year plagued by deep well equipment failures throughout the North Kona water system.

“It’s well documented what happened in 2017 in North Kona, but what a lot of folks don’t see is what these guys do behind the scenes,” Takamine said, noting the long hours and taxing nature of the jobs. “We did an evaluation late last year … and they actually scored really well. They had high marks on the board. We feel like they’re doing a great job.”

Customers in North Kona spent nearly a year, from January 2017 to earlier this month, under a mandatory water usage restriction, which at its most modest called for a 25 percent consumption reduction and at its harshest called for a halt to all non-commercial irrigation, limiting residential water use to basic necessities of life and hygiene only.

The restriction was downgraded Jan. 9 to a 10 percent voluntary conservation.

Takamine praised DWS officials during the course of the rough year, commending them for keeping water flowing to all North Kona water customers despite setbacks that left five of the system’s 13 water sources simultaneously inoperative on two separate occasions.

When asked if the Water Board considered forgoing raises for DWS brass after discussing public perception about the situation in North Kona, Takamine stood resolute behind the value he said Okamoto and Uyehara provide the department.

“I think there are folks that may have thought that, but we also had to consider what their value is to the department,” he said. “I think we just really tried to be fair, and I think 8 percent is fair.”

Takamine said after applying the raises to current salaries, the highest paid civil servant within DWS is paid only $1,000 to $2,000 less annually than Okamoto and still makes more than Uyehara.

“The deputy is getting paid much less than an employee that he manages,” Takamine said.

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Okamoto didn’t return a message seeking comment Tuesday.

Email Max Dible at mdible@westhawaiitoday.com.