Engineer shortage jeopardizing parts of Water Plan 2020

LIHU’E – A shortage of engineers in the county Department of Water is making it difficult for the department to keep up with its ambitious facilities-improvement plans associated with Water Plan 2020, said Ernest Y.W. “Ernie” Lau, DOW manager and chief engineer.

Water Plan 2020 is “critically important to the community and the future,” to ensure that existing water systems don’t collapse, and that new and existing systems are sufficient to allow economic growth, he said.

“Water Plan 2020 is the biggest program ever undertaken (by DOW), and without the support of customers, we couldn’t have done it,” Lau said.

The plan is progressing well where fixing existing pipelines and installing new pipes is concerned, but lagging in terms of development of new water sources, he said.

Sometimes it’s a difficult sell getting access from landowners to drill test wells and working wells, he noted.

When Lau leaves Kaua’i and the DOW next month to become the deputy director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources in Honolulu, and a member of Gov. Linda Lingle’s new administration, there will be a total of four key vacancies in the DOW, Lau said.

The engineer shortage is a statewide problem that has delayed the beginning of the state Department of Transportation capital-improvements program, said Lau.

Low salaries for public-service engineers are forcing many of them into the private sector, said Lau, who along with other county department heads have not had an administrative pay raise since 1996.

In addition, high-technology companies setting up offices on Kaua’i have raided government offices for engineers, accountants, and other highly trained specialists, he said.

“Salaries have to keep up with the cost of living and the marketplace,” Lau said. “If salaries keep slipping, we will have trouble recruiting and retaining people.

“And you can’t blame people for looking for better opportunities,” said Lau. “It is my hope that the County of Kaua’i moves forward to address the issue of fair compensation for department heads and deputies.”

Mayor Bryan Baptiste and the County Council are aware of the situation, and Baptiste wants to do something to address pay inequities between what department heads make working for the county versus what they can make in the private sector, Lau said.

Baptiste has expressed frustration at not being able to secure a registered engineer with the requisite management experience and desire to lead the county’s largest unit, the Department of Public Works, as county engineer.

An active search for a county engineer continues, said Vida Mossman, acting county public information officer.

The position of deputy county engineer, which is not mentioned in the County Charter, apparently does not have to be occupied by a registered engineer. That position also is vacant, the result of Ian Costa accepting the position of director of the county Planning Department.

Costa, an architect by training and experience, had been deputy county engineer, and acting county engineer after former County Engineer Cesar Portugal moved into the civil-service position of head of DPW’s Division of Engineering.

At DOW, Lau’s departure leaves Deputy Manager Edward Tschupp as acting manager. The County Charter mandates that the DOW manager be an engineer, but is silent on any matters pertaining to the deputy manager.

“It is a very difficult thing,” Lau said of finding qualified engineers willing to work for the county in either appointed or civil-service positions.

“You want good leadership if the county is going to perform at a higher level,” and to get good leaders “you need to compensate fairly,” he said.

In nearly every county department, his included, some civil-service employees with many years of service make more than the appointed department heads who supervise them, he commented.

Most if not all of those civil-service employees would make excellent department heads, but won’t make the move if it involves taking a pay cut coupled with a raise in responsibilities, work hours and pressure, he noted.

Money played a part in Lau’s decision to leave the county, but aging parents and a father-in-law living on O’ahu were a consideration, too, he said.

“I needed to think about the financial future of my (one-income) family,” said Lau, who was born and raised on O’ahu and is looking forward to being closer to his parents and father-in-law. His mother was born and raised on Kaua’i, and he’ll leave the island with a heavy heart.

“I will miss Kaua’i. There is no better place to live,” he said. “People become like family.”

When Lingle was elected and said she would accept rsums from anyone interested in jobs in her administration, Lau applied, for no specific position, he said.

“The governor was gracious enough to consider me for this position in DLNR. I feel very honored to be given this opportunity,” said Lau, 46.

He feels he is leaving the department in good hands, and wanted to thank the Board of Water Supply, employees, customers, and the mayors he worked under, for their support.

“I feel we’ve made progress for our community through the help and hard work of the staff. What’s made the difference here, too, is support from the Board of Water Supply, and the mayor,” Lau said.

“Coming into this position can be tough, and even tougher without support from above.” He feels the DOW has been working as a team for the good of the community, something he hopes will continue after he’s gone.

“The ability to work together as a team is important for the county to progress, too. Customers have been very supportive, too,” he said.

“It’s been an honor and privilege to have served our community as its water manager. I would like to thank the Board of Water Supply for their support,” he said.

“Also, the progress we have made would not have been possible without the dedicated and hard-working employees of the Department of Water.

“The department is moving forward with building Water Plan 2020 projects to ensure the long-term sustainability of our island’s water systems,” he added.

“I look forward to the challenges of the position with DLNR. I have a lot to learn, and I hope that I can continue to serve the people of Kaua’i at the state level.”

The Board of Water Supply is charged with finding a new DOW manager and chief engineer. It will take up the matter at its February meeting, Lau concluded.

Staff Writer Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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