Wednesday | February 22, 2017
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Not going with the flow: Proposed water rate hike riles up Waikoloa residents

Waikoloa is a working community that can’t afford to see water and sewer rates more than double, scores of residents told members of the Public Utilities Commission Wednesday evening in South Kohala.

“These are real homes for real people that live here, and they’re mostly lower or middle income families and often there are multigeneration families living in one unit,” Ali Blackmore, Waikoloa Fairway Terrace Home Owners Association president, testified regarding a proposed 142 percent increase to sewer rates. “This will absolutely cause people to lose their homes. It’s not a rhetorical question — it will happen because people in our complex can’t afford this. They just can’t.

“I want the commission to look at this and what it will mean in real terms for our community.”

According to Blackmore, the rate increases proposed by Hawaii Water Service Co. would mean a $100 per month per unit increase in association dues. The association currently spends about $120,000 on sewer and $60,000 on water annually. She also took issue with the company assessing sewer charges on water used solely for irrigation since it never gets to a wastewater treatment plant.

“We just can’t afford this,” she summarized.

On the topic of a proposed 120 percent increase in village water rates, resident Carol Dierickx asked the commission to consider the people and a lower rate than the company has requested. She also requested the company be more transparent in its charges on bills.

“This shocking increase is a hardship on so many, especially on the people who can least afford it,” she said, referring to retirees and young families. “I’m asking you consider no more than a 5 percent increase — 5 percent I think we could handle, more than that I am not so sure.”

Nearly 200 people turned out for the public hearing on rate increases and tariff revisions sought by Hawaii Water Service for service in Waikoloa Village and the Waikoloa Beach Resort area. As of press time, nearly 30 people had provided testimony on the three applications with all but one, who asked simply the PUC to make stipulations about reducing rates in the future, opposing the request. The meeting had yet to wrap up as of press time.

Testifiers expressed anger about being subject to a monopoly and possibly having to cover the cost of projects the company has already completed or started, and the need for increased services from Hawaii Water Services. Some also opposed the possible waiver of audited financial statements in exchange for unaudited statements.

Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs Consumer Advocate Jeffrey T. Ono did not oppose the waiver request so long as the company makes available all financial statements.

“I would certainly want to see their books audited,” said Pete Hoffmann, a Waikoloa resident and Hawaii County Councilman. “I would want to make sure they are doing it property and doing it with the consumer in mind as much as their bottom line.”

Tom Smagel, vice president of California Water Service Group, parent company of Hawaii Water Service, said the parent company is a publicly traded entity that is audited quarterly, and those audits should suffice.

“The commission and consumer advocate have full access to our books and records,” he said. He claimed a full audit would cost $100,000.

The hearing was held as part of the commission’s process as it determines whether to approve the application filed Aug. 28 seeking the rate increase, power cost adjustment and revisions to its tariff rules. The process takes approximately nine months.

The company, which serves about 2,000 homes and businesses in the village area, has not applied for a rate increase since the 2008 acquisition of three companies serving Waikoloa, Hawaii Water Service’s Jim Smith said. He said the increases are necessary to cover the money the company’s already spent replacing a wastewater treatment plant in Waikoloa Village, upgrading a different plant, drilling a new well, building a million-gallon tank, and power and labor costs.

In Waikoloa Village, the company doing business as West Hawaii Water Co. is seeking a 119.73 percent increase to residential, condominiums and commercial establishments for water and a 141.7 percent increase for wastewater services the company offers via Waikoloa Sanitary Sewer Co.

The company is also seeking increases for its resort entity, West Hawaii Utility Co., which provides potable and irrigation water and wastewater services in the Waikoloa Beach Resort area.