Declaring the "state of our county is good," Mayor Alan Arakawa delivered his 2013 State of the County Report before an audience of 250 people at the H.P. Baldwin High School auditorium on Wednesday, Feb. 20.
Among the highlights of the speech was the mayor's call for a 5 percent across the board increase in water rates to pay for needed improvements in Maui's aging water system.
Addressing the needs of the water system, the mayor said, "we must continually invest in it in order to maintain and improve this valuable resource." Among the improvements and repairs the mayor noted were the upgrades at the Pi'iholo water treatment plant, fixing the Waikamoi flume to end the constant leaks in the system and increase the volume of water and drilling new wells in West and Central Maui to improve the reliability of the water system.
The mayor proposed an ambitious agenda of infrastructure repair and construction during his “State of the County” speech.
"Please remember," the mayor said, "that our current water system was put into service more than 80 years ago. These are repairs and upgrades that have been long overdue, and it will be another decade of work just to catch up."
County Councilman Don Couch agreed that now is a good time to fund long-term projects because interest rates are low and the county bond rating, which determines the cost of borrowing money, is the best in the state.
Turning to South Maui, the mayor thanked Gov. Neil Abercrombie for including design and construction money in this year's state budget for the Kihei High School, and said the county looks forward to working with the state on the project.
Addressing the controversy over plans to build an outlet mall and retail shopping center mauka of Pi'ilani Highway in Kihei, the mayor urged all parties to work together for a solution that would avoid laying-off workers and meet the concerns expressed by members of the community. (It should be noted that this reporter has assisted the developer with public information efforts about the proposed project.)
"I know there is a portion of our community that is upset with the Eclipse Development group for not listening to their concerns, just as there is another portion of our community upset that their family members and friends are now laid off because the project has been delayed," the mayor said.
"Although the county believes that the proposed Eclipse project is in compliance with applicable state and county land use designations, they fell short of the Land Use Commission's interpretation of the law."
"They can go in and file for a modification of their plans but that will take months, and in the meantime our friends and neighbors are out of work. I'm not sure what can be done at this point, but we should work together to save these jobs, as well as the estimated 1,800 long-term jobs that this development would have brought to Maui."
"We can do this if we do it together. Our community has been at odds before, but in the end we always come together," he added.
The mayor also reported on an amicable meeting with Larry Ellison held on his yacht off the coast of Lana'i the day before the mayor's speech.
"It was during that discussion that I realized that Mr. Ellison's goals and Maui County's goals have a lot in common," the mayor said. "Like us, he is committed to developing clean renewable sources of energy for the community, wants to strengthen the visitor industry and improve local infrastructure and the overall quality of life for the people there."
Among Ellison's plans is a state-of the-art desalinization plant, a technologically advanced water system to irrigate organic farms on the island, a movie theater and a bowling alley with an old-fashioned ice cream parlor.
Council Chair Gladys Baisa said she enjoyed the mayor's speech. "I liked it. It was a positive, upbeat speech, and that's the kind of person I am. I think that's the spirit of Maui County that's going to pull us through with whatever's coming. I do believe we're on an upswing here. Yes, we have some issues, but we're going to be able to deal with them."
Asked about the mayor's proposed water rate hike, Baisa said, "I think that is absolutely necessary if we're going to solve our water problem. Actually, we've waited too long to do it. This is why we fell behindwater is the key to everything, and we have to get it done."
Interviewed after his speech, the mayor returned to his theme of taking on tasks that have languished on the county's agenda.
"What we're trying to explain to the community is that we have a lot of tough challenges that we really have to address. We have a lot of infrastructure problems that have been building for generations. If we're going to resolve our problems, we're all going to have to think about these things logically, come up with viable solutions and stay the course and fix them," he said.
"If not, we're going to transfer all of these responsibilities to our children, to their children. We can either do it now--bite the bullet--do our responsibility or we can be negligent and pass it on. I prefer to take the responsibilitydo what we need to do and get it done now."
His ambitious agenda includes saving the county millions of dollars in rent payments by demolishing the old post office next to the county building and building a new county building; a waste to energy program that reduces the amount of trash going into the central landfill and generates clean energy; expanding the construction of bus shelters; repairing and repaving roads every 20 years, instead of the current 40-50 year schedule; breaking ground on a new Central Maui regional park; and the construction of a new pool to replace the one at the War Memorial complex, which is leaking badly and in need of constant repairs. It's clear the mayor will need strong public and council support.
With his State of the County speech, the mayor may have taken the first step toward achieving those goals. The speech was interrupted by applause seven times, and at its conclusion, he received a standing ovation.