Sewer rate hike moves forward

County Council members Wednesday held their noses and advanced a sewer rate hike few seemed to like, sending it to the council for two more votes.

The council Finance Committee unanimously advanced Bill 210 after throwing around possibilities for extending the hike from three-year increments to five years, or exploring other funding sources to help pay for sewer operations. That conversation will take place when the bill is next heard, after Environmental Management Director Bill Kucharski checks back with the Environmental Management Commission.

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Several council members questioned the fairness of requiring a percentage of residents to shoulder the full costs of keeping the environment clean. About 20 percent to 30 percent of the island’s households are on a sewer system.

“I understand the necessity for it. I think we all agree having sewers is the preference for our environment,” said Council Chairman Aaron Chung of Hilo, who said he’s on a cesspool. “I can’t resolve in my mind the people who are on sewer systems and are protecting the environment have to pay for protecting the environment while the people who are on cesspools that don’t protect the environment don’t have to pay.”

“I truly believe protecting our shorelines is everybody’s responsibility but this fee is going to be on the backs of a very few,” said Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy.

Other council members pointed out that the sewer fees pay for operations of the existing sewer system, while other costs are paid by all taxpayers, such as for creating new sewer infrastructure.

“There is a sharing; it may not be equitable but there is a sharing,” Kucharski said. “I can’t say everything is going to be smelling roses.”

It’s a price worth paying, council members said.

“I’ve lived in a time in my life when every dollar matters,” said Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, saying she’s gotten calls from concerned constituents opposed to the rate hike. “However, I also want to recognize we’re living in the First World, and that’s two Starbucks coffees. … It hasn’t been a priority and we’ve gotten away with it a long time.”

Currently, $7.5 million of the $12.9 million operating budget for sewers comes from user fees. About $3 million comes from the general fund and the rest is made up with fund balance and reserves, according to county budget documents.

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.

“If we don’t do something a little bit now, it’s going to be a lot later,” said Kohala Councilman Tim Richards. “If we distribute the cost over more people it’s going to be less per person.”

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Hawaii County has by far the lowest sewer fees in the state, and they haven’t been raised since 2002, Kucharski said. The county is under a mandate to close its cesspools over the next 30 years.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

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