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Water board discusses collections

January 28, 2014 - 9:39pm

Placing liens against property when water or sewer bills are overdue, and shutting off water service for past-due sewer bills were two collection avenues discussed Tuesday by the county Water Board.

The board agreed to push a bill at the state level to allow counties the authority to place liens against property. The bill, SB 3094, is being sponsored by Sen. Gil Kahele, D-Hilo, at the board’s request.

“It’s just another tool in our tool belt. We’re still leaving in place all of the due process afforded to (property owners),” said board member Susan Lee Loy, who’s been working on the legislation. “This would be the very last step.”

The bill, which, if passed by the state Legislature would still require changes to the county code or administrative rules, would apply to both past-due water and sewer bills.

Board member Art Taniguchi emphasized that the legislation would simply provide for a lien; there would be no foreclosure action such as the county can execute for unpaid property taxes. The lien, he said, puts a cloud on the title that has to be removed before the property is sold or refinanced.

“Eventually, when they do something, we get our money,” Taniguchi said.

Water bill scofflaws are more than $1.2 million in arrears over 90 days, water officials said.

Board members were more skeptical about another proposal, by Environmental Management Director Bobby Jean Leithead Todd, for the Department of Water Supply to cut off water service for those behind on their sewer bills. Sewer is overseen by her department, not the Water Department.

“Collection of sewer fees for the county has always been problematic,” she said.

Leithead Todd cited the success Environmental Management has had collecting past-due garbage tipping fees from commercial haulers after it cut off service to the seriously overdue.

“In many cases, people were miraculously able to come up with the funds that they owed us,” she said.The department has no leverage to collect sewer bills, because of public health issues if sewer services were blocked, she said. Currently about 26 percent of billing addresses are past-due, she said. She was unable to come up with a monetary amount when asked after the meeting.

Board members were more amenable to this proposal than Leithead Todd’s prior proposal of a joint billing system, but several were still dubious. The board listened to her presentation but took no immediate action.

“If we go and shut the water off, who are they going to call? They’re going to call the Water Department,” Taniguchi said.

In other business, the Water Board unanimously agreed to release a parcel of land within the Kahakai Estates subdivision in North Kona from an irrigation agreement. The lot is being taken over by the state Department of Education for the benefit of Kahakai Elementary School.

The agreement, executed between developer Stanford Carr and the Water Department, could possibly have made the Department of Education liable to help fund a future irrigation system to benefit the subdivision, and the DOE saw that as an encumbrance on the property. The irrigation agreement will remain intact for the remainder of the subdivision, said Water Department officials.

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