Enlist private sector to help cut Maui water list backlog

The following commentary was published originally in The Maui News on April 26, 2018. 

The issuance of water permits to Upcountry Maui residents has been moving at a snail’s pace in recent years, preventing residents from hooking up to the county water supply and forcing them to procure water through other means, such as water-catchment systems.

But this could be solved relatively quickly, if the county were to take advantage of an obscure state law.

Currently, the Maui Department of Water Supply has been processing only 60 applications per year — making only a small dent each year in a backlog that currently stands at 1,728 properties.

Department of Water Supply officials say the major reason for the delay is lack of staffing. Currently, the department’s engineering division is short two engineers, leaving only two others to deal with the entire Upcountry water meter list.

Whatever the reason might be for that, the department clearly is taking too long to issue much-needed water permits, and a quick fix would seem to be in order.

Hiring a private contractor to help would be an obvious solution, but thanks to a 1997 state Supreme Court ruling known as the Konno decision, there are significant legal barriers in Hawaii to going down that path.

Fortunately, Hawaii Revised Statute 76-77 (7) does give the county the power to temporarily hire contractors when “personnel to perform the service cannot be obtained through normal civil service recruitment procedures,” albeit for only a year.

Under that law, a county’s personnel director is empowered to determine whether a department should temporarily use private contractors to address a county’s needs.

The law is unclear whether the personnel director could authorize an extension beyond one year of any contracts with the private sector; perhaps the state Legislature could weigh in with a clarification — especially since it is unlikely the water meter list could be be fully processed in one year, even with the help of contractors.

In any case, Maui County should strongly consider using HRS 76-77(7) as a way to address its water department’s backlog of applications for water service.

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