County enforces collection of $750,000 in delinquent sewer fees from 4,708 users

Kaua’i County is going after residents and businesses who have not paid $750,000 in sewer fees officials say are needed to help maintain the island’s public sewer system.

County finance director Eugene Jimenez said he doesn’t know specifically how far back the delinquent bills go, but noted the county will now pursue automatic billing of sewer users.

The sewer system was set up to help protect underground water sources and promote sanitation.

But because of prohibitive cost, the system serves only parts of Kaua’i, including some of the island’s most populated communities. They include Lihu’e, Hanama’ulu and parts of Kapa’a town.

The unpaid bills have drawn the ire of more than 30 senior citizens who are asking the government to get the bills paid. The elderly critics are generally widowed, on fixed incomes and are retired plantation workers.

“All our lives, we never were delinquent with our bills,” said one elderly resident. “At first we thought not to pay our bills either, but we don’t want to pay interest (penalties) later.”

The county currently has 4,708 sewer customers, of which 515 are related to businesses, 3,235 are related to single-family units and 958 are related to multi-family units, Jimenez said.

The $753,362 in delinquent fees is tied to 625 accounts, Jimenez said. In the mix are businesses that have declared bankruptcies and possibly homes that have been demolished, Jimenez said.

“How many of these customers are truly delinquent?” Jimenez asked. “They (houses or businesses) may not be there anymore. There might be a problem, and we are slowly addressing it.”

The wastewater treatment division of Kaua’i County Public Works Department has a running record of delinquent accounts and has been diligently sending letters to offenders, but has not had much success, Jimenez said.

To address the problem, the information services division of the county finance department hopes to develop an automatic billing for delinquent accounts, Jimenez said.

Jimenez said the problem looks to be solvable, as the number of delinquent bills has remained “pretty consistent” in recent years.

In a letter to the Garden Island, the senior citizens asked whether the county was making an effort to collect the debts.

The County of Hawai’i, one Lihu’e resident complained, recently took three businesses to court to collect nearly $100,000 in unpaid sewer fees. Kaua’i County officials should do the same, the resident said.

The decision by some people or businesses on Kaua’i not to pay the fee is “not “fair,'” contends one senior citizen who said she and many others from her generation made many sacrifices during the plantation days. “We did without many things in our lives, and we always paid our bills.” she said. Jimenez said some people don’t want to pay because they feel the rate is too high.

In their letter, the senior citizens noted their rates have increased five times since 1994, when the bi-monthly bill was $48.

As of September, the amount has gone up to between $76 to about $80, the senior citizens contend.

In the letter, the senior citizens said the current method of payment is unfair. Households with a single person are assessed the same rate as a household with seven or eight adults, they said.

They said they wanted put in place a “more equitable system in setting sewer rates.”

Recently, The Kaua’i County Council approved a bill giving a monthly $20 sewer tax credit to people with a $40,000 yearly income or less.

The bill was introduced by councilman Bryan Baptiste and was supported by council chair Ron Kouchi.

Approval of the sewer credit was timely, Baptiste has said, as the legislation “is relief for people who simply cannot afford it (increased sewer rates).”

Following the council vote approving the sewer credit, Baptiste said he hoped to find an equitable solution for the sewer tax structure.

During the meeting, Kouchi noted that in the 1970s, when federal funds were available for public sewer systems, people on the island wanted to better protect water resources. They opted for such a system, which was built incrementally as funds became available.

In the development of the system, the county at one time used general fund subsidies, drawing on some property tax revenues, Kouchi said.

In the mid-1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency conduced an audit of the county and determined it was illegal for the county to have used general funds for sewer operations, Kouchi said.

The federal agency also determined a fee structure had to be set up to generate funds to cover the system’s operation, Kouchi said.

Kouchi also said public testimony only confirms the feeling that rates have “gone sky high” and noted that new technology tied to septic tanks offers another way for the protection of drinking water sources.

At one time, some residents protested against having to hook up to sewer lines, contending cesspools on their properties were still usable. Those who hooked up were to discontinue the use of their cesspools.

Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and mailto:lchang@pulitzer.net

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