HILO — Hawaii County is owed more than $4 million in past-due landfill fees and sewer bills, a number that’s creeping upward even as Environmental Management officials implement new procedures to recoup the bad debt.
Garbage haulers now owe the county $2.42 million in tipping fees, the amount commercial haulers pay to dump their waste at the county’s two landfills. Of that, $1.55 million is more than 90 days past-due, according to a Sept. 26 Department of Environmental Management report to the Environmental Management Commission. That compares to $1.5 million in September 2011 and $1.4 million in March 2011.
Sewer fees are another problem area for Environmental Management. Homeowners and businesses connected to the county sewer system owe $1.66 million, with more than $1 million of that past due.
“I don’t think it’s fair for the people who do pay their sewer bills for some people to take advantage of the system,” Environmental Management Commissioner Thomas Randle said Tuesday. “It falls back on taxpayers to make up that deficit.”
In fact, sewer fees are expected to increase once the department figures out a way to deal with the deadbeats.
Randle has been requesting regular updates on both sets of arrearages, trying to keep the department’s focus on finding solutions.
The past-due problems are nothing new.
In May 2009, then-Environmental Management Director Lono Tyson laid out a plan to recoup past-due amounts, including holding public hearings in Hilo and Kona to put scofflaws on notice they must pay up, enter payment plans or be banned from dumping garbage at the county landfills. But multiple management changes have kept the department from staying on track.
Tyson has since resigned, as has his successor, Frank DeMarco. The department is currently headed by Acting Director Dora Beck. Solid Waste Division Chief Mike Dworsky left as well and was replaced last year by the new chief, Greg Goodale.
DEM Business Manager Robin Bauman said the department has implemented several new procedures to address the problem. Recently, notices were sent out to 69 hauling companies that they could not use the county landfills until they made payment arrangements for their balances. The county has also filed lawsuits against the most serious scofflaws. So far, 33 lawsuits have been filed, 11 judgments have been received and four payment plans have been set up with payments being made, according to the DEM report to the commission.
“Our new procedures are going to improve our collections,” Bauman said. “I’m very optimistic about that.”
Collecting past-due sewer bills is proving to be more of a challenge. DEM has asked the county Department of Water Supply to consider joining the two system’s billings, in the hopes that water service can be shut off when people don’t pay their sewer bills. Currently, DEM has very little recourse, since shutting off sewer service could be considered a health and safety hazard.
But the Water Department, which is not a true county agency but a quasi-governmental one run by the Water Board, which relies not on taxes but on fees, hasn’t embraced the solution of joint billing.
First off, said Water Department Controller Rick Sumada, legislation will need to be enacted and rules and codes changed to make the transition. Then, the Water Department would need a billing system that accommodates both services.
Sumada said the City and County of Honolulu’s water department is currently performing billing services for Maui and Kauai, and since the Honolulu system can accommodate combined billing, Hawaii County could possibly join that service.
“It’s still far from being put in place,” Sumada said. “We’re still trying to determine the best way to go about doing this.”