Maui’s top water official said the county will be lenient on a case-by-case basis and may offer relief but can’t forgive all the bills because it needs the revenue.

August water bills are in for Kula residents who turned their own hoses on wildfires encroaching on their houses last month as the fire department was overwhelmed with rapidly spreading flames elsewhere, including the hardest-hit town of Lahaina.

For Steve Anderson and many of his neighbors, it was unwelcome sticker shock when they learned that they were being charged more for the extra water usage — in some cases more than twice as much.

Anderson’s bill more than doubled from $70 in the month before the Aug. 8 fires.

“The last billing I had was Aug. 23 and it was like 150 bucks,” he said.

Lauren Haley’s neighbor’s house, cars and Harley Davidson motorcycle were destroyed in a wildfire, photographed Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023, in Kula. Haley has been using the firefighting hose to put out hot spots from underground tree roots. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Attempting to contain the wildfire near their houses in Upcountry Maui, some residents used far more water than they usually do, significantly raising their monthly water bills. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Constituents of Upcountry Maui council member Yuki Lei Sugimura have complained to her about similar jumps.

“Their water bills doubled or tripled sometimes,” she said.

The Aug. 8 inferno that destroyed much of the once-bustling seaside town of Lahaina killed at least 97 people, making it America’s deadliest wildfire in over a century.

Meanwhile Upcountry Maui contended with its own brush fires. Nobody died, but houses and property burned. Some residents took matters into their own hands as lingering hotspots continued to flare up for days.

Some parts of the area also remain under an unsafe water advisory amid concerns about fire-related contaminants.

When the fire first hit, Anderson, a retired National Parks Service biologist, said his wife was home.

“She sprayed the house down with water until she absolutely had to leave,” he said.

He credited his wife’s actions for why their house is still standing, albeit with smoke damage and in an area with an unsafe water advisory.

For the past few weeks, he and his neighbors also have been running ratchet sprinklers to moisten the surrounding land, he said. 

More water used means more money owed at the end of the billing cycle. Anderson thinks that he and the others shouldn’t have to pay. 

“The Department of Water Supply told me that what I should do is pay my bill, and fill out a form to contest the billing and explain why. So I did that back in August. And I have not received any reply from them,” he said. 

Maui’s top water official said the county will be lenient on a case-by-case basis but can’t forgive all the bills because it needs the revenue.

“We’re asking people to pay if they can,” said John Stufflebean, director of the Maui Department of Water Supply. 

“We’re not going to charge late fees if they don’t. But we don’t want to tell everybody ‘you don’t have to pay your water bill.’ That would be bad. Because that’s all our revenue,” he said. 

Like on Oahu, the agency that runs Maui’s water supply relies on customers’ water payments to pay for its operations instead of taxpayer funds. Its projected revenue was $67 million for fiscal year 2023, the most recently available data.

Stufflebean estimated a loss of about $18 million in revenues because of the hundreds of houses that burned down in Lahaina.

A brush fire razed Lahaina in West Maui, Aug. 8. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui’s top water official estimated a loss of about $18 million in revenues because of the destruction of some 2,200 structures, including about 1,500 homes in Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

He appealed to Upcountry customers to pay their bills on time but promised some form of relief in the future – maybe in the form of a credit to be used for future payments, he said.

“Those that are in the unsafe water advisory, we’re going to give them some relief. And then those who used their water to fight the fire, of course we’re going to give them relief too,” said Stufflebean, adding that people who lost their homes will not have to pay.

He said he’ll be meeting with the department’s financial manager on Friday to “put the finishing touches” on a plan. 

Oahu’s water agency is semi-autonomous, meaning that its finances are legally separate from the broader finances of the City and County of Honolulu. 

But Maui’s is not. Technically, money from Maui County’s general fund could be transferred to the Department of Water Supply, a move that Stufflebean said could work. But he worries about the county’s overall post-fire financial health.

With the loss of tourism and many property taxes – a significant moneymaker for local governments around the country – Maui County will have fewer financial resources to dole out for government services. 

“The general fund is also going to be impacted in a very large way,” he said.

He said the department is pursuing federal and state funding to help cover lost revenue.

Sugimura supports shifting funds to cover the department. 

As chair of Maui County Council’s Budget, Finance, and Economic Development Committee, she understands the department’s financial limitations. She’s just adamant that residents should not have to foot the bill.

Yuki Lei Sugimura, who leads Maui County Council’s budgeting process, says the Department of Water Supply needs to tell the council how much money it needs transferred to cover lost revenue. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

There must be some concrete number that captures the extent of lost revenue and the money now needed for improvements, she said. 

“Tell us what it is so we can help you. And we don’t have to rely on people paying their bills, and we’re going to have to credit them later,” she said. 

Kula resident Kyle Ellison, who helped fight the fire near his house but as a renter did not personally see the water bill, agrees with Sugimura. He emphasized that talk of relief sounds great – but until it’s implemented, he said, “talk is talk.” 

Damage to his home meant that he has had to move around between a combination of friends’ properties and Airbnbs.

The decision to waive water fees would have precedence. 

On Tuesday, the state Board of Agriculture elected to waive the entire month’s water bills for two property owners on Big Island after they used their water supply to fight fires on Aug. 8.

The water used to fight the fire, which occurred on the Lalamilo Farm Lots, came from the Waimea Irrigation System, owned by the Department of Agriculture. 

“Obviously it’s a no-brainer that they would get this waiver,” Maui resident and board member Vincent Mina said. “I just want to make sure our agriculturalists are supported to keep their farms from burning down.”

Upcountry residents essentially argue the same thing. 

“We had a community basically fighting fire using the metered water from residences,” said Anderson. “And it just doesn’t seem right that people should be asking you to pay for that firefighting activity.”

Civil Beat reporter Thomas Heaton contributed to this report.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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