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Editorial | Island Voices

City Council should have oversight over Water Board budget


The Honolulu Board of Water Supply is out of control.Over the past several years, BWS has had problems with overpaying management, vague workplace rules and lax fiscal standards.Now BWS seeks a rate increase totaling 70 percent over five years.

The time has come for the Honolulu City Council to re-examine the level of oversight it should be exercising over BWS operations.Currently, the mayor appoints and the City Council confirms the members of the board.Unfortunately, the mayor and Council have failed to hold the board accountable or carefully scrutinize its spending habits.

Today, BWS is asking the public to stomach a whopping 70 percent increase in water rates.If any other public body, whether it be the U.S. Congress, the Legislature or the City Council, were to seek a 70 percent increase in taxes, the response by the public at the polls would be swift and clear.

If BWS actually needs a 70 percent increase for repairing and maintaining our water system, the Council needs to call BWS management on the carpet to ask how and why maintenance was neglected for so long and matters were allowed to fall into such a terrible state of disrepair.If the 70 percent is not needed, and BWS is only asking for a financial cushion for prospective future work, the Council needs to ask management why it thinks this rate increase is a good idea to foist upon local families in the middle of a recession. In either case, this is a clear sign of poor management at BWS.

In 2006, The Honolulu Advertiser reported that more than $500,000 was awarded to BWS executives in bonuses. Later that year the city auditor released a report showing poor fiscal controls and general neglect of the city’s water system by BWS.

Almost all local families, non-profits and small businesses over the past several years have tightened their budgets. People have consistently been asked to do much more with much less. Smaller staffs, more outsourcing and an overall budget squeeze are the norm everywhere in Hawaii. Because BWS writes its own budget with no oversight, it has not gone through the same fiscal tightening almost every Hawaii family and other public agencies have gone through. Before asking the public to take a 70 percent rate hike, BWS needs to show the public that it has looked at reducing the size of its workforce and eliminated all unnecessary expenses, such as public affairs lobbying, just as other public agencies have done.

BWS, however, seems not to care, as it is not accountable to the public and the Council refuses to ask the hard questions.

Over the past several years, BWS has paid tens of thousands of dollars to high-priced lobbyists to court the politicians on the Council and at the Legislature.BWS is deathly afraid of the Council amending the charter to give the Council real authority to scrutinize and disapprove BWS’ annual budgets.

Now that BWS is seeking to add to the economic misery in Honolulu with a 70 per­cent water rate increase, it is my hope that the Council will finally wake up and start asking BWS how it is spending the people’s money. The mayor and Council, for example, should be asking if BWS could save resources by leasing out its expensive downtown headquarters and moving its offices to West Oahu — something that has never been examined. Another avenue to consider is whether BWS can find savings by privatizing more of its services.

Finally, BWS should examine if it can reduce the size of its workforce, the way many private companies in Hawaii have done.

Local families and many nonprofit and government agencies in Hawaii have been forced to cut spending in these tough economic times. The time has come for BWS to do the same. The Council should consider amending the City Charter to make BWS accountable to the public by requiring Council approval of BWS’ annual budget and of any rate increases proposed by BWS. This is the only way to address BWS’ apparent disregard for the public and ultimately make BWS accountable to the people through the elected representatives on the Council.

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