Is Water Board out of control?

In the fight with the City Council over control of the new rail authority, HART, the Carlisle administration has often cited the Board of Water Supply as a shining example of a semi-autonomous agency that sets its own spending without council oversight.

Former Councilman Charles Djou turned that reasoning around in an op-ed piece in yesterday’s Star-Advertiser, arguing that the Water Board has displayed questionable management and poor judgment and should have to get City Council approval for its spending and rate increases. That would require a City Charter amendment.

The gist of Djou’s argument:

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.

Because it’s not part of the annual council budget debate, the BWS has enjoyed a fair amount of invisibility in its operations.

But the proposed 70 percent water rate increase in recessionary times has gotten the public’s attention, as has the board’s plan to add to the sting by billing monthly instead of bi-monthly.

I’m not yet convinced there’s a case for a total overhaul, but at the very least the BWS owes us a better explanation of why it needs such a huge increase beyond generalities about maintaining aging infrastructure.

It’s transparency we must insist on because of precedent it sets for HART.

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16 Comments on “Is Water Board out of control?”

  1. Capitol -ist/WassupDoc Says:

    That’s the problem of using percentages instead of actual dollar amounts.

    Seventy percent sounds awful, but in fact using $$$ instead of %ages makes it much more reasonable AND realistic.

    The amount of the increases over the next several years will the the equivalent of a large cup of Starbucks cofee twice a week or a trip for two to the nearest yogurt shop every two weeks.

    From the BWS website:

    Spreading this rate increase over several years will reduce impacts on customers. In the first year of this rate program, our system-wide rate will increase by 9.65 percent. For the first year, the water rate will go from $2.79 to $3.06 for 1,000 gallons of water. The billing charge will be applied monthly instead of bi-monthly. The increase in rates and the increase in the billing charges means an additional $6.99 on the average residential customer’s monthly charge.

    For more information about the current rates, click: http://www.boardofwatersupply.com/cssweb/display.cfm?sid=1175

    Here are the proposed water rate increases: http://www.boardofwatersupply.com/cssweb/display.cfm?sid=2198

    With respect to the non-monetary issues being raised, I’ve been tracking BWS matters for about 15 years now and have gotten to know many of the employees. They are NOT responsible for the aging infrastructure and the population increase along with the demands for more water.

    At statehood, the population of O`ahu was slightly over 500K. In 2010, it was 953,207. Our water may fall out of the skies, but it takes a lot of man-made pipes to bring it to our houses.

    Yes, we’re being hit with all kinds of cost-of-living increases in our utilities and not much in the way of increases in income. But is there a choice?

    If the increases don’t go through, then what suggestions do people have to repair the infrastructure and provide water to an estimated population on O`ahu in 2023 of 1.4 million people. That figure come from the Department of Planning & Permitting itself.

    I doubt that putting rain catchment barrels on our roofs will address our water needs so what else can we do.

  2. el guapo Says:

    One flaw in the argument is comparing an increase in water rates to a tax increase. Unlike income or property taxes, rates are directly linked to usage – use more, pay more. That’s why it is a rate and not a tax. Another possible flaw is that he served on the council that should have provided oversight.

  3. Kolea Says:

    Setting aside what Djou wrote, can anyone explain WHY he is writing about the Board of Water Supply instead of national issues if he is running for Congress?

    Every politician seeks free media to raise their profile and gain support from voters. But a couple of months ago, Djou wrote another commentary on the need for civil service reform in the state and county government. Now he is writing about the Board of Water Supply.

    This does not seem to be the behavior of someone running for Congress. I can understand a conservative Republican like Djou not wanting to be asked about what’s going on in Washington, D.C.. I mean, how can he win if he criticizes the Tea Party or if he aligns himself with them at a time when public opinion is turning against them?

    OTOH, maybe Djou is thinking about a run for Mayor?

  4. Hugh Clark Says:

    Much like the Big Island, Oahu’s separate water management system makes sense. No intertwining of rates with taxes and no-water usage.

    I prefer the semi autonomous route, though it has been argued ad nauseam. Yes, we are paying more, but mostly because of electric costs as the water departments pay higher power costs.

  5. robert Says:

    i’d prefer being billed monthly too. easier to manage. that’s good news to me.

  6. Richard Gozinya Says:

    The next time someone trots out the “it’s no more than a cup of Starbucks” argument, I’m gonna hit ’em with a stick. We, the taxpayers, are being hit with significant increases across the board:

    -water
    -electricity
    -sewer
    -vehicle fees
    -user fees
    -fuel charges
    -shipping fees
    -alternative energy surcharges
    -GET for rail
    -property tax bumps
    …….and on and on and on.

    Proponents all say: it’s a small quantum amount – like a cup of Starbucks. Thing is, we’re already drinking Folgers at home. maybe the politicians and their lobbyist cronies and the folks feeding at the tax trough are in Starbucks; it would be appropriate for them to overspend on coffee like everything else.

    And it’s not just the public sector. Fact is, the things we own (house, cars, etc.) are deflating in value while the cost of everything we need to buy is inflating. Wages are static and for those on fixed incomes the purchasing value of their dollar erodes by day. Even that 78 yen:dollar that makes our HTA friends so elated reflects a weakened dollar that drive prices up.

    So spare me the “Starbucks” analogy. BWS needs some serious oversight and probably some fresh blood too. Their past audit didn’t exactly shine with management brilliance. Let’s require BWS to prove its case before prattling on that a 70% increase is nothing to care about.

  7. Capitol -ist/WassupDoc Says:

    I’ll buy your arguments only if you refuse to accept any public services such as First Responders, solid waste & sewers/pothole repairs/potable water/parks & recreation, etc.

    Why would you physically threaten someone who is willing to pay for needed services? Don’t pay your bills if you really feel that strongly about what you’re getting.

    Why not buy all these services from private companies so that you can stop paying for them through your taxes & fees/assessments.

    This is currently not an option, but in the meantime, what are the realistic options for paying for these needed services. You don’t think that disease-free water coming out of your kitchen tap is worth paying for?

    Studying a public agency does not reduce expenses. There are only two ways to do that – cut servies or raise taxes/fees.

  8. Richard Gozinya Says:

    “Studying a public agency does not reduce expenses. There are only two ways to do that – cut servies or raise taxes/fees.

    Or maybe increase efficiency. Do more with less. Cut fat. Demand better performance. Reduce error. Eliminate the bloat. Toss out deadwood. Bring compensation into line.

    All things possible with better management/oversight.

  9. el guapo Says:

    Feel lucky that you have access to running water. Maybe Hugh can provide numbers as to how many residents on the Big Island rely on catchment and also don’t have electrical lines to their houses. .

  10. Kolea Says:

    I’m not sure what the squabble is. BWS has asked for a 70% increase in water fees. How is it unreasonable to ask for a full justification of that rate hike?

    Yes, water is precious. And, yes, the infrastructure is pretty old and probably in need of some maintenance, much like our sewage system. But, as Richard says, we are experiencing rate hike after rate hike and these things add up, especially in these VERY TIGHT times.

    As for water catchment, I think we need much more of it. Capturing rainwater for non-potable uses, as well as recycling “grey water,” are probably essential “low-hanging fruits” in water conservation. I think BWS should take the lead in promoting such practices.

    (I am surprised no one has commented on my remark about what this commentary might suggests about Djou’s ambitions.)

  11. David Shapiro Says:

    Kolea, Djou served eight years on the council and it’s no surprise he remains invested in those issues and comments on them. I think he still has the Washington bug big time in terms of his political ambitions, though. He’s kind of boxed in. He’s said he won’t run for Hirono’s seat unless the reapportionment puts him in CD2, which is unlikely. That would leave him to go for a rematch against Hanabusa in CD1. She’s done nothing to seriously antagonize voters since she beat him in November and my guess is that recent events in DC have swung Hawaii voters even further away from the Republicans. I think Djou’s got some political game, but just don’t see a winning message for him at this point.

  12. Kolea Says:

    Thanks, Dave. I had not heard speculation that he was not going to run for Congress. Which is why his recent county-level commentaries have caught me by surprise.

    I see the current dynamics in Washington as a “no win” situation for Djou. Also, I think Hawaii voters are less skeptical with a Republican running for an office like Mayor, where a little fiscal discipline and independence from “the Machine” might be welcomed. If Djou is forced in a congressional run to repeat the current GOP talking points, he will be seriously damaged.

    Should Hanabusa jump into the Senate race , which I think is unlikely, I suspect Djou’s congressional ambitions may re-surface.

  13. Kolea Says:

    Dave,

    You and I might think Djou shouldn’t run for the Congressional seat, but it appears he sees things differently.

    Posted yesterday on the National Journal:

    Former Rep. Charles Djou, R-Hawaii, is closely considering a run for his old seat in Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District regardless of whether Democratic Rep. Colleen Hanabusa vacates the seat to make a Senate bid, he told Hotline On Call Friday.

    “I am giving very serious thought about running again, running for the House, running for the first congressional district,” Djou told Hotline On Call. “And that’s whether or not Colleen Hanabusa decides to run for the Senate.”

    BTW, while there were rumors the GOP was going to try to re-draw the Congressional boundaries by wrapping around Makapuu to include Republican-friendly Kailua, apparently that was “a bridge too far.” It appears they have succumbed to the more logical idea of extending the First CD westward towards Ko Olina.

    Hey, Colleen won’t have to sell her house after all!

  14. Richard Gozinya Says:

    Now it turns out the BWS is one the biggest spenders for lobbying. Second only to the HTA. Uh huh, one chunk of government spending big bucks to lobby another chunk. Great efficiency and use of funds.

    As Djou said, “I think this is exhibit No. 1 of waste of money,” he said. “And before the Board of Water Supply goes forward trying to foist a massive increase upon the public, they ought to be eliminating this.”

    I predict the more folks dig into this “semi-autonomous” BWS, the more cockaroaches gonna come scurrying out.

  15. WooWoo Says:

    Djou should sit out 2012 and work on 2014. Neil will have pissed off everybody by then and more doubts will surface (I’m already hearing them) about his age. Carlisle will sense an oportunity and gun for the 5th floor. Djou would have an advantage over any likely mayoral opponent.

  16. Motorola Says:

    BWS needs review. It is completely REASONABLE to ask for salient justification. I am the customer here and I demand a valid reason. I would be shocked to find out that there are inefficiencies in one of our state government entities. I mean they are the most efficient business templates we have right?

    All sarcasm aside, In this day and age, every tax-funded organization better start acting like a business and tightening up policies and procedures. Is anyone surprised that an organization that has minimal oversight and is able to deflect criticism will NOT improve? There is no reason that it should. Accountability and controls are the only way to hold peoples feet to the accountability fire. It’s simple management. Try stop telling your children that they shouldn’t do something. Without your positive CONTROL and LEADERSHIP, the child will now determine through little tests, how much they can get away with.

    I for one want accountability and value for my tax dollar.
    Right Richard G.? . . .Goes where?


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