When the University of Hawaii’s West Oahu campus opened in 2012, one Honolulu city department failed to notify another that the facility was occupied and should be billed for sewer use.

This year, the city realized its oversight — and sent UH a bill for $35 million.

UH officials appealed, and now the university and city department are trying to sort out the sewer mess. The bill was based on projections of the size and enrollment at the new UH campus that have not been met, and so the total is likely to be significantly lower. 

The snafu resulted from a lack of communication between the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting and Department of Environmental Services.

UH West Oahu Campus Center Building with Campbell Library at left.
The city hasn’t been billing the University of Hawaii West Oahu for sewer charges since 2012. Now, the city has come to collect. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In the past, the planning department did not always notify environmental services that a house or facility had been occupied and should be billed.

“We sometimes don’t catch the fact that something’s up and running,” said Deputy Director Timothy Houghton. “We didn’t make that connection to start charging them.”

The two departments are now linking databases so that whenever a certificate of occupancy is issued, environmental services starts a sewer account, Houghton said.

“For some reason, we didn’t catch that they were connected and we hadn’t yet established an account for them,” Houghton said. “It’s not a good excuse. It’s just kind of what happened.”

UH knew it wasn’t getting billed the full sewer charges, Kevin Ishida said during a UH Board of Regents meeting earlier this month, but it’s not clear if officials tried to raise the issue earlier. UH was getting the water bill that normally includes sewer charges.

“Until someone sends me a bill, if I’m UH, I didn’t ask the question I probably should have,” Houghton said.

That eye-popping $35 million bill, sent in April, won’t stand. It was calculated based on preliminary plans for the West Oahu campus that projected development of 500 acres and a population of about 20,000 students.

The total campus is about 300 acres with a fall enrollment just under 2,900. A new estimate for UH’s costs is expected in the next week or two, Houghton said.

On top of the yet-to-be-determined base sewer charge, UH is also on the hook for about $823,500 in charges for sewer volume dating back to 2012. That charge is due Sept. 25, Leila Shimokawa, a UH West Oahu spokeswoman, said.

UH has dedicated $3.75 million in this year’s budget for sewer costs. The campus has enough in reserves to cover it, and the added expense shouldn’t affect programs, Shimokawa said.

“We’ve been really trying to communicate to resolve this,” she said.

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