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Higher water rate would be worth the extra burden

LAST UPDATED: 2:23 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

Honolulu's Board of Water Supply went 11 years without raising fees, and the island's aging pipeline suffered the consequences. A proposal before the board to increase fees by 9.65 percent in each of the next five years will be hard on residents during a struggling economy, but delays of needed maintenance would make matters exponentially worse in the long term. The public can weigh in on the proposal at an Aug. 22 hearing — but regardless of the rate-increase outcome, all water users should adopt water conservation habits to lessen the economic hardship.

Water fees remained the same from the 1996 through 2006 fiscal years, at which point the city auditor chastised the board for awarding lucrative bonuses to top executives and putting pipeline maintenance behind the priority of "re-engineering projects" because of "one manager's vision."

A public hearing on the proposed water rates will be at 2 p.m. Aug. 22 in the Board of Water Supply's board room at 630 S. Beretania St.

Clifford Lum, then the board's chief engineer, defended the past policy, but Dean Nakano, the board's present acting manager, politely disagrees.

The board is semi-independent from city government and must raise its own operating revenue.

"Perhaps if the board at that time may have undertaken a smaller increase over the 11 years, then maybe we could propose a lower rate at this time," Nakano told the Star-Advertiser's editorial board on Thursday. "We're at a point where we have to put some funds toward our capital improvement."

The rates were increased in each of the following five years following the 11-year period of no hikes, by 13 percent in 2007, dropping gradually to a 5 percent hike in the past fiscal year. Still, the Honolulu water rates for a typical residence have been relatively small, averaging $39.55 monthly, while neighboring counties' rates range from $41.50 to $60.17. Many mainland rates are even higher. (The rates do not include sewage service fees, which are included on the water bill but go to the city Department of Environmental Services.)

The water agency's plan is to increase monthly rates per 1,000 gallons from the present $2.79 to $4.42 in five years. The revenue would pay for replacing 30 miles of pipe each year and rebuilding and replacing reservoirs, pumps and generators.

Maintenance has been so far behind that water main breaks have increased by 40 percent in the past three years, according to Nakano.

The monthly fee increases would significantly improve maintenance to an acceptable level. In the 2005 fiscal year, only two miles of pipeline were repaired, according to the city audit. Repairs now reach about eight miles a year, and the agency hopes the new rate increase will result in nearly doubling that amount. We agree that this level of progress is necessary to avoid pipe bursts and other emergencies, which are more disruptive and larger-sited than scheduled, controlled work.

Still, the criticism in the recent past about the water board's fiscal practices necessitates that both its proposed rate increase and six-year maintenance game plan are sound.

The board's current management accepts the fact that maintenance was not sufficient in past years. If it must do catch-up now, it must do it smartly. Should rate increases be approved, the board must vigorously seek to maintain the infrastructure with better efficiencies and technologies, so as to avoid repeating this deep dip into the ratepayer well.

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