By Hugh Clark
Avertiser Big Island Bureau
HILO, Hawaii The Hawaii County Board of Water Supply is expected to vote next week on rate increases that some farmers say would drive them out of business.
The proposed rate hikes would affect all water consumers to varying degrees over a period of five years, but farmers would see the greatest percentage of increase 22 percent in April and an additional 17 percent in July 2003.
For residential water users, the proposed increases would boost a typical familys monthly bill from $26.25 a month to $31.05 a month, an increase of nearly 18 percent.
Water department officials have said the rate increases are necessary to pay for new water wells and increased electrical costs for running pumps.
Ruth Rotstein of LonePalm Farm in Kapaau said she and her husband, David, already pay $1,100 a month for water. "This would be the demise of my company," Rotstein said of the proposed hikes.
Each week, the Rotsteins produce four vanloads of hydroponically grown sprouts for Hilo vegetable wholesalers and two air container shipments to Honolulu. Speaking at a water board meeting last week, Rotstein said her business is facing a double whammy of higher water rates and new regulations requiring sprout growers to increase water use to avert salmonella poisoning.
Having to pay more for water would drive the farm out of business, she said, and put 15 employees out of work.
Small farms arent the only ones in jeopardy, according to a representative of the largest employer at the high-tech park at Keahole.
Ron Scott of Cyanotech, which grows microalgae for food products and employs 60, said a rate increase would mean $450,000 in additional water costs for the company over the five-year period.
Board members previously heard testimony against the rate hikes from the Hawaii Export Nursery Association and the Kona Farmers Alliance.
A decision on the proposed rate hikes has been deferred until Jan. 23 at the request of water board member John Clark of Puna, who said he believes the rate analysis by consultant R.W. Beck Inc. is incomplete and "flawed." He said the proposal does not cleary identify who would qualify for agricultural rates, and would punish farmers during drought conditions.
Delan Perry, speaking for the Big Island Farm Bureau, agreed, and said a recent survey of his groups members showed that only a quarter of small growers are taking advantage of favorable water rates for agricultural users because of confusion or lack of knowledge about water rules.
The board is expected to vote on the proposed rates at 10 a.m. Jan. 23 in the Liquor Control Commission meeting room in the Hilo Lagoon Centre.
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