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County has miles to go with junk-car problem

Regarding the pending bill to impose a vehicle registration fee to take care of

junk cars on this island (TGI, Sept. 22, “Junk car fee in for a scrap”),

collecting an annual fee is only part of the problem. The other part is how the

money that goes into this dedicated fund will be spent.

A review of our

county administration’s record to date does not give us any confidence. Note,

first, that the language describing this bill (Draft Bill No. 1959) is, in

part, “To assist the county in funding the disposal of abandoned and derelict

vehicles and to possibly fund a portion of the operation of the Puhi Metals

Recycling Center if required.” Lots of room for wiggling, no?

For years I

have advocated a simple first step in Kaua’i County’s quest for some progress

in its solid-waste management: Look at how the other islands do it. A

no-brainer suggestion, of course. But let’s take one specific example: How to

get rid of junk cars?

Here’s how Hawai’i County does it. A $4 fee is

collected every year during car registration, the money going into a dedicated

fund to support the disposal of junk cars. This generates about $400,000 a year

which is used to dispose of around 10,000 junk cars a year (roughly one-tenth

of the total auto population on the island). A single contractor is hired to

collect the cars, process them (clean out the fluids, etc.) and barge them to

Honolulu to a chopping facility where the cars are reduced to iron pellets

destined for recycling. The county provides no capital facility, except to buy

its own tow truck for $65,000 to tow the abandoned cars to a collection point.

The single contractor does it all for a contract price of around $320,000 a

year, and that includes the disposal of tires, batteries and refrigerators. A

single county employee – the derelict vehicle coordinator – at a salary of

about $26,000 manages the whole operation. This junk car disposal scheme has

been in operation on the Big Island since September 1994.

I visited their

solid-waste people myself in June 1999 and wrote a report to the council. The

interesting history behind this successful and economical program (under which

the average of making a junk car disappear from the Big Island is about $40) is

that the idea of collecting an annual fee originated on Kaua’i, in a memorandum

submitted to then-mayor Yukimura by a deputy county attorney on April 5,

1991.

Now, let’s see how Kaua’i County has handled junk cars since 1991.

The proposal (which the Big Island adopted) was rejected and forgotten, until

shortly after the shockwave generated by the Wall Street Journal in a March

1998 front-page story about the “garbage island.” After some tortuous

legislative moves at the state level that took two years, this current draft

bill has finally been created.

On the Big Island, it took a simple

ordinance by the county council in 1994 (introduced on March 23, 1994, adopted

and effective Sept. 1, 1994) to get the whole thing going. The current year

budget is $401,840. (There are 100,000 vehicles on the Big Island. During the

average 10-year life of a car, $40 is collected through the $4 annual fee,

yielding $40 to cover the disposal cost. Very simple mathematics, no?)

To

describe what has been going on here with respect to junk car disposal would

take not the few paragraphs above about the Big Island, but volumes. Perhaps

when the proposed Kaua’i County charter amendment giving the council the power

to audit the county administration is passed by the voters this November, the

first audit should be the junk car operation.

Since that fateful Wall

Street Journal article, only one bargeful of junk cars have left the island.

All the others have been piling up at the Puhi facility. My best, very rough

estimate of the cost of ridding us of one junk car (if it ever leaves the

island, that is) is anywhere from $300 to $500. Yes, that is for one car. To

convince yourself that you have not been reading a fairy tale, take a drive

down Puhi Road (opposite Kaua’i Community College) past the residential area on

the left and the industrial area on the right. You come to a very large

fenced-off area on the right with a mountain of junk cars at the far end. (A

picture taken at this location is on the front page of the Sept. 23 TGI.) At

the near end by the road is apparently an office building. There is no evidence

of a processing area where the cars are cleaned of hazardous materials, nor any

machinery for squashing the cars for shipment. But, anyway, that’s the fabled

Puhi facility into which around a million dollars of our tax money have

disappeared – hence the term “black hole” as a more appropriate name for the

facility that Mayor Maryanne Kusaka’s administrative assistant, Wallace

Rezentes Sr., promised the public in October 1998 would be ready in two weeks.

(We have the Hoike tape to prove this promise.)

The administration story at

the moment is that a request for bids has gone out, or about to go out, for an

operator of the Puhi Metals Recycling Center. (When you think of it, this seems

to be a pretty pretentious name for the black hole.) Recalling how the

administration has failed in three tries this past year, and is about to issue

the fourth bid request, to get someone to come in to operate the Kaua’i

Resource Exchange Center (more popularly known as the white elephant, that

gleaming empty structure sitting idle for the last two years near Lihu’e

Airport), one should not hold his breath.

More importantly, the public

should not let the County Council pass Bill 1959 until there is an accounting

of the expenditure of a million dollars for that large fenced-off area at Puhi

with nothing but a garage-type building and a huge mountain of thousands of

junk cars.

Raymond L. Chuan,

Hanalei

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