Molokai Irrigation System to Collect on Delinquent Accounts
By Melissa Kelsey
Under the strain of a faltering state economy, some Hawaiian homesteaders find it unjust that they have to pay the price. For thousands of generations, Hawaiians lived off of Molokai’s bountiful resources. Now, even water comes at a price, as the State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture (DOA) makes plans to collect on delinquent homesteader Molokai Irrigation System (MIS) water accounts this summer.
A recent state audit found that water account delinquencies are on the rise in the MIS, and that more than half of delinquent account users continue to regularly use water, according to Duane Okamoto, Deputy Director at the DOA.
“This is a bad time for the state, and particularly Molokai,” said Okamoto.
Okamoto said as of April 30, 2009, 73 MIS water account holders owe the MIS a combined total of $234,852, with 24 of the account holders owing $1000 or more. To fall into the delinquent category, an account holder has to be 60 days or more behind in payments.
The general MIS water rate, which is the same for both homestead and non-homestead users, is 33.5 cents per 1000 gallons, the same rate it has been for the past three years, according to Okamoto. In prior years, the Hawaii State Legislature has given the MIS $425,000 annually to be used where the board deems it to be needed most. As part of an effort to cut costs system-wide and balance the state budget, this year the legislature has proposed to provide only $361,000. In addition, Governor Lingle could sign a bill July 15 that would take $5 million out of a DOA fund that enables the DOA to give loans. Taking into account inflation and past-due homesteader accounts, Okamoto said the DOA is struggling to keep water rates down and provide loans to farmers and agriculture companies.
“If people do not pay up, we cannot loan out again,” said Okamoto.
As a result, the collections process will begin around July 1, 2009 and by September 30, 2009 the DOA hopes to have all past-due account owners on payment plans. In November, they plan to conduct follow-up on the payment plans.
Okamoto said the DOA plans to work closely with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) and the Department of Hawaiian Homelands (DHHL) throughout the collections process.
“We are trying to focus on getting the system in as good as shape as possible,” he said.
In an additional effort to cut costs, the MIS will no longer include envelopes when they send out bills, starting in July. Okamoto said this change will save $450 annually.
Some Hawaiian homesteaders on Molokai argue that it is illegal to charge homesteaders for water, based on the free water guarantee cited in the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920.
Section 221 of the Act explains that the DHHL has the right to use government-owned water free of charge if it is necessary for livestock, aquaculture operations, agriculture operations or domestic needs of homesteaders. Section 220 of the Act says that the DHHL only has the right to derive revenue from the sale of water to non-homesteaders. While the DHHL water system provides homesteaders with potable drinking water, the MIS delivers homesteaders non-potable water for agricultural purposes.
Okamoto said the DOA’s stance is that while the water itself is free, homesteaders still have to pay pumping fees for water delivery to their homes.
Martin Kahae of Ho`olehua is one homesteader who does not pay part of his bill out of principle because he does not think the charges are just.
“The water bill is not Hawaiian,” said Kahae. “It is not about the money. I do not agree to the state charging homesteaders for water. Water should be free to homesteaders unless they are selling something from the land.”
Kahae explained that the state should especially not enforce these particular bills on homesteaders when they do not follow all of their own laws, explaining that past state audits have revealed governmental neglect and abuse of the entire MIS system and its responsibilities to homesteaders.
Homesteader Lynn DeCoite finds it unjust that the DOA is enforcing collections on homesteaders when she says they have waived accounts of non-homesteaders in the past.
“All of a sudden, because of the situation they are in today, they want to go after the homesteaders for collections, and that is not fair,” said DeCoite. “The Department of Agriculture needs to be fair. If they can waive delinquent bills on other companies, they should waive bills on other people,” she said.
Hawaiian homesteader and Mycogen Seeds Molokai Project Manager Adolph Helm encouraged homesteaders to make contributions to the system to keep it operating.
“If every farmer could just put down a little bit, to me that is right,” said Helm.
At the MIS board meeting last Tuesday, Helm wondered out loud if some of the delinquent accounts could be inherited debts from past lease holders, and encouraged the DOA to look at each account on an individual basis to figure out why the individual is in the debt situation in the first place.
MIS employee Oscar Ignacio acknowledged that some of the delinquent account owners may be having trouble with system logistics.
“We try to help kupuna because some are struggling to understand the process or have broken pipes,” he said.