Building Bridges

Molokai communities join against rising water rates.

By Catherine Cluett

From Kaluakoi to Kualapu`u and Maunaloa to Mana`e, over 100 Molokai residents forgot their differences last Tuesday to share ono food, good company and their mana`o together under one roof. But they had more than just that in common – they all shared a concern for the water rates that are proposed to increase as much as 577 percent in some areas of the island.

“It’s not so much about money, but they’re touching our very existence,” said Kualapu`u resident Eugene Santiago.

Like many others at the meeting, Santiago said he hadn’t been active in the water debate in the past. But the exorbitant rise in proposed rates changed his mind, and he said he is now getting involved.

The Rates
Molokai residents are not getting worked up over nothing. On March 2, 2009, the two water utilities, Wai`ola O Molokai (Wai`ola) and Molokai Public Utilities, Inc. (MPU), filed for rate increases as high as 5 times what the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) had previously approved. The utilities, subsidiaries of Molokai Properties Ltd. (MPL), also known as Molokai Ranch, have proposed a two-phase one year “test” period for the rate increases. Wai`ola is seeking a general rate hike of $10.69 for every 1000 gallons sold, up 577 percent from the rate of $1.85 per 1000 gallons, which is what consumers were paying last August. MPU applied for rates of $10.39 per 1000 gallons, up 326 percent from the last PUC approved general rate of $3.18.

Ratepayers of both MPU and Wai`ola are currently paying a temporary rate, which the PUC approved in an unprecedented move last summer after MPL threatened to terminate water services altogether.

About 1200 Molokai residents would be affected by the increases. Wai`ola provides water to consumers in Maunaloa, Kualapu`u, Kipu, Manawainui and Molokai Industrial Park. MPU services residents at Ke Nani Kai, Paniolo Hale, Kaluakoi Villas and Papohaku Ranchlands.

Both Wai`ola and MPU submitted unaudited financial records in place of audited statements. The PUC ruled not to accept the unaudited statements, and now both utility companies have to file amended applications. A public hearing on Molokai is suspended indefinitely pending the utilities preparing and re-filing new applications.

Molokai’s Mana`o
“You look at these documents and you don’t have to see a horror story tonight,” said west end resident Joel Liu, pointing to MPL’s rate increase applications posted on the wall at the meeting.

Esther Torres-Umi of Ho`olehua suggested an island-wide “walk for water” to bring awareness of the issue and unite Molokai communities.

Karen Holt, Executive Director of Molokai Community Service Council, urged legal action on the part of ratepayers. “I don’t think the process that the PUC has followed is legal,” she said. “I’m sensing that this is going to go on and on unless we seek legal means.”

Lyle Dunham, a board member of the West Molokai Association, reported that the Association has retained a lawyer to research the water rates. But in addition to pursuing legal avenues, he also acknowledged the power of the human emotion.

Breaking Down Barriers
“I’m here not only about water rates, but to build a bridge,” said Joe Kalipi of Maunaloa, explaining the need to create inter-community relationships.

“This meeting was the missing link,” said Molokai activist Walter Ritte, noting the representation from many Molokai communities. “This has never been done before… everyone joining together,” he continued.

Event organizer Cheryl Sakamoto said she “committed to walking the walk” after being quoted in a previous Dispatch article acknowledging “the need to make this a community effort.” Along with fellow residents Joel and Adeline Liu, Stephanie Coble and Lynn and Bill Vogt, Sakamoto printed up flyers and went door to door, inviting other ratepayers from Kualapu'u, Maunaloa and Kaluakoi to come together for the community meeting.

"This water issue brings out an emotional response that is more than just economics,” said Sakamoto. She added that she was pleased to hear not only the diverse ideas of Molokai residents, but also to see the inner side of the issues come out. “We respond with emotions, but it is the spirituality within us that must guide our actions," she said.

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