Hundreds Stand for Water

Residents protest Ranch’s proposed rates increases

By Dan Murphy and Catherine Cluett

It was tough to travel anywhere on the island last Saturday morning without driving past enthusiastic groups of protesters in light blue T-shirts. From Kilohana to Maunaloa, rate-payers and supporters held signs and cheered at passing vehicles to raise awareness of Molokai Ranch’s skyrocketing water rate increases. A public hearing will be held on Molokai on Thursday, Sept. 3 at the Mitchell Pauole Center at 5 p.m.

“We are already paying the highest rates in the nation and they want to increase it four to fives times – it’s insulting,” said Molokai Planning Commission Chairman Joseph Kalipi and Maunaloa resident. “The quality is so poor we can’t even drink the water. We would like to see county water rates.”

At the end of May last year, Molokai Ranch threatened to shut down their water utilities Molokai Public Utilities (MPU) and Wai`ola O Molokai (Wai`ola), citing financial hardship. In an unprecedented move, the PUC approved temporary rate increases that have been described as outrageous.

MPU and Wai`ola filed general rate applications with the PUC in March, requesting rate increases of as much as five times greater than what consumers were paying last summer. The utilities also requested their applications be accepted with unaudited financial statements in lieu of audited ones, which the PUC denied

Molokai citizens already pay the highest water rates in the United States. They will be in a league of their own if the new rates are passed. Wai`ola has applied for a rate of $8.97 per 1000 gallons (nearly five times the current rate) and MPU pushed the envelope to $9.61 per 1000 gallons, tripling their current rates.

Ripple Effect
About 1,200 Molokai customers will be affected by the proposed increases. Wai`ola provides water to residents in Maunaloa, Kualapu`u, Kipu, Manawainui and Molokai Industrial Park. MPU services customers at Ke Nani Kai, Paniolo Hale, Kaluakoi Villas and Papohaku Ranchlands.

Many residents have already had to shut down gardens that been in their family for generations because they can’t afford the water to keep them going. Skip Roy of Kaluakoi said that he has already mulched his garden and would have to stop watering it if the newest rate increase went through. Roy said he paid about $90 for each month last summer. If the new rates are approved, he will have to pay over $400 for the same amount of water.

Shutting down gardens will destroy more than food. Maunaloa resident Byron Espaniola said many families grow plants to practice la`au lapa`au – a traditional practice of Hawaiian medicine. Espaniola said his garden has already been downsized after the temporary rates went into effect last summer. If the PUC approves the new hike in rates, Espaniola said he and fellow residents will likely lose their whole gardens.

Eugene Santiago, who helped organize the protest in Kualapu’u, said he hoped Saturday’s event would send a message to the PUC that they could not afford the new rates. Protestors said they could not understand why the PUC was standing up for the Ranch instead of the citizens.

“Our concern now is to try to get the PUC to help us look at this whole situation with the ranch and provide just cause [for the increases],” Santiago said. He said he believes the rates jumped because Molokai Ranch has done a poor job of maintaining the system and is now turning to rate payers to finance the repairs. “We’re being held hostage,” he said.

Drying Out the Well
In addition to water rate increases, MPU and Wai`ola requested in their amended applications to increase other fees such as service charges for meter reading, private fire protection charges, adjustable charges for power and fuel costs associated with water production, and reconnection fees.

For example, MPU is proposing doubling their private fire protection rates, while Wai`ola is requesting their customers pay nearly fives times as much as they are currently charged. MPU has proposed a standby charge (per installed meter) that is three times greater than what customers are paying now; Wai`ola has requested a service charge increase for meter reading of nearly five times greater than the current rate. Reconnection fees are also proposed to double for both utilities.

Many other protestors, like Molokai High Vice Principal Danny Espaniola, said residents are not getting what they are paying for.

“I don’t see any improvements done to the existing system, so where’s the justification [in rate increases]?” he wondered out loud.

Santiago’s mother, Loretta, has been paying Molokai Ranch for water since they arrived on the island. She said there have never been any jumps in price like the proposed rates. Last summer, she was paying less than $30 a month for water. If the PUC approves of the new increase, she will be paying over $100 a month. For Santiago, and many other seniors, those increases will seriously affect the fixed budget she lives on.

Many others across the island were also pulling for PUC to step up and deny the increase.

“The PUC should not cave in again to the Ranch,” said Kaluakoi resident Bill Vogt. “All of this is punitive because of La’au point not going through.”

He said he would like to eventually see another company purchase the water company. Vogt’s rates could climb as high as $480 a month if the rates are approved.

Many residents who don’t pay the Ranch’s water rates also showed up Saturday to protest, showing support for their fellow community members.

“I would just like to see the Ranch do what is right for the residents of Molokai. If they can’t afford to do that, then just give it to the county,” said Perry Buchaltar, a Maunaloa resident who entertained his fellow protestors with a harmonica.

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