New Storm Water Utility may hike taxes or fees on Oahu

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Hold onto your wallets. A whole new water utility is in the works, and it could cost Oahu residents, businesses and even the state and federal government dearly. Always Investigating explains it’s called the “Storm Water Utility,” and it aims to raise more than $100 million a year for what the city says are critical environmental improvements.

Among the details being worked out right now: how much it will cost each ratepayer, and whether it will be on your property tax bill or on an invoice from a new entity.

Honolulu residents and businesses have grown used to paying their electric, sewer and water bills, but get ready to dig even deeper, because a new storm water utility is forming as we speak.

“In order for us to continue to have the water quality that people really aspire to visit and play in, we have to make sure that we have all the necessary pieces in place,” explains Ross Sasamura, director of the Honolulu Department of Facility Maintenance. “Not only enforcement, not only regulation, but devices or measures that actually decrease or eliminate the pollutants that could jeopardize the quality of our nearshore waters.”

Here’s how it would work: The county would charge — either through a property tax hike or through a monthly rate based on property types and tiers.

They’re trying to as much as double what gets spent on stormwater operations and capital, and the preliminary math on that pencils out to the equivalent of a 16 percent property tax hike on the residential rate (56 cents per thousand dollars of value), or – if charged as a rate or fee separately for taxes — $35 bucks a month ($420 a year) per homeowner based on a “medium”-sized home.

PDF: See details from a city stakeholder advisory group document here.

Link: Storm Water Utility website https://www.stormwaterutilityoahu.org/

Always Investigating asked Sasamura: “Many local families, many local businesses are struggling, and some of these monthly costs could be astronomical. How much more blood can you get from the stone when you put new taxes and fees on people?”

“Right, so we understand that, we’re sensitive to that,” Sasamura said, “so one of the things we’re really stressing is to find ways so that people — property owners actually — have the means to control what their bill looks like.”

The program may incorporate credits for remodeling areas that are impervious now, such as pavement or diversions designed to push storm water into the street or storm drains.

“If we give people the option of either taking away some pavement, diverting roof gutters into gardens, using rain barrels to capture some of that storm water, those are things that may reduce the bill,” Sasamura said.

How much that would cut monthly costs remains to be seen. Under the draft plan, before factoring in any credits, apartment buildings could have to pay more than $13,000 a year, hotels even more than that. Federal or state facilities — right now exempt from property tax — could pay six figures annually. And watch out, Honolulu airport: The draft shows a $300,000-a-month bill for that, more than$ 4 million a year.

KHON2 asked, could they really take advantage of any of these offsetting credits?

“Sure, and that’s one of the things that we’re encouraging, because we recognize that not only residents but businesses have impacts that they want to try to avoid as well,” Sasamura said. “Actually if you look at some of the newer developments, some of the high-rises in Kakaako, they actually have cisterns that are designed to capture stormwater now, and these are all things we want people to take full advantage of.”

The city’s Department of Facility Maintenance is taking the lead on public presentations that kicked off last week. There are 14 more yet to come: https://www.stormwaterutilityoahu.org/participate-3/

The city says they’re not reinventing the wheel.

“We’re not the first, there are actually about 2,000 of them already in place in North America,” Sasamura said.

They say the proposed rates would be around what folks in Washington state pay.

Even without the utility, about $46 million a year comes from property taxes to cover existing storm water operations.

“Right now property taxes handle a good deal of it,” Sasamura said. “One of the concerns and one of the issues we have with the property tax revenue stream is that there are a number of competing priorities. So if people want more fire protection or more police protection, that means that other agencies will get less money than they typically would have otherwise”

While this is a whole different category from drinking water and sewer fees you pay for separately, the city says focusing on storm water handling is needed to keep those systems adequate for the future too.

“As we continue to develop on this island, as more people live here, the draw-down of our aquifer our drinking water supply is going to get greater and greater,” Sasamura said. “The more we develop more homes for people to live in, we’re going to be generally shedding more water off into the storm drain. So we’re trying to balance this off so we maximize the amount of drinking water available for everybody and also protect our environmental assets we have, the clean water we all enjoy.”

The Storm Water Utility website has a list of the public meetings scheduled, with events running through February and March. https://www.stormwaterutilityoahu.org/participate-3/ Public comment is also being accepted online, Sasamura says, for those who cannot make it to the meetings.

“All of those comments then will get taken into consideration and shared with our stakeholder advisory groups,” Sasamura explained, “so that when we come up with a package to the city council, it will be the result of our best effort to accommodate everybody’s concerns and everybody’s desires with the outcome of protecting our nearshore waters.”

The final pitch before the Honolulu City Council could start as soon as this summer, according to a timeline included in the January stakeholder advisory group meeting PDF.

“We also have to go through the city council at the end of all of this to make sure that we get their approval before we can actually move forward,” Sasamura said.

We will continue to follow up.

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