In late December, the state Department of Health released a report to the Legislature identifying 14 priority areas throughout the state where cesspool upgrades are critically needed to protect public health and the environment.
The report was done in compliance with Act 125, passed by the Legislature in 2017, and requires the replacement of all cesspools statewide by 2050.
In the report, Upcountry Maui was identified as a priority area for cesspool upgrades because nearly 7,400 cesspools pose a “significant risk” to human health. The state’s studies show a significantly elevated groundwater nitrate concentration beneath and down gradient of the cesspools, which may be problematic for drinking water.
The report alarmed many residents and as a result, the Department of Health held an informational meeting Upcountry early this month. The room was packed with over 100 residents, and it was clear that homeowners have major concerns with the mandate.
The obvious burden is the significant cost of upgrades to convert a cesspool to a septic tank. Upcountry is also unique because much of the public drinking water is from surface water, such as the Waikamoi flume, and not well water.
DOH officials recognize additional studies are warranted. In the meantime, the Legislature and DOH must come up with a better plan to provide incentives such as tax credits, grants or other financial assistance to help not only Upcountry residents but many others statewide to comply with this requirement.
Many good suggestions were made at the public meeting, including prioritizing upgrades near drinking wells or considering nitrate treatment systems for wells.
Health and safety are paramount, but it is simply unreasonable to alarm residents with potential unsafe drinking water concerns and place a financial burden on them without a comprehensive action plan.
As a community, we must let our voices be heard and continue to submit comments and concerns to state lawmakers and the Department of Health. During this legislative session, I will also be lobbying legislators to ensure this matter is dealt with in a fair and equitable manner.
In other matters, earlier this week the County Council’s Budget and Finance Committee recommended approval for salary cost items related to the arbitrated collective bargaining agreement with the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.
Under the four-year statewide agreement, police officers would receive a 2 percent increase in salary, retroactive to July 1, 2017. On July 1, 2018, officers would receive a 2.25 percent increase followed by 2 percent increases in 2019 and 2020. Firearm allowance increases and one-time bonuses ranging from $1,800 to $2,500 in 2019 and 2020 round out the package.
According to estimates, in fiscal year 2019 the increase in the police contract will cost the county an additional $3.2 million. Over the life of the contract, the cost increases are estimated to be over $7.6 million over fiscal year 2017.
The raises for police follow similar increases to other collective bargaining units. The only remaining employer group to reach an agreement is the counties ocean safety officers.
Collective bargaining agreements are closely monitored as the increases play a large part in balancing the county’s annual budget. Payroll and fringe benefit costs add up to nearly 50 percent of the county’s operating budget and any increases must be covered by taxpayers.
Community needs are always top of mind, but each expense must be covered by some type of revenue. Full discussions on the county’s finances will take place during the county’s fiscal year 2019 budget deliberations. The mayor’s proposed budget must be submitted to the council by March 25.
* Mike White is chair of the Maui County Council. He holds the council seat for the Paia-Haiku-Makawao residency area. “Chair’s 3 Minutes” is a weekly column to explain the latest news on county legislative matters. Go to mauicounty.us for more information.