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DEM to Address Widespread Transfer Station Closures by Funding More Staff

December 17, 2019, 3:29 PM HST
* Updated December 17, 3:51 PM
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Big Island transfer station closures have plagued residents for weeks.

For the last several weeks, Big Island transfer station closures have seemed almost a daily occurrence.

The Department of Environmental Management’s Solid Waste Division employs around 110 people who operate 23 transfer stations island-wide. The issue, DEM Director Bill Kucharski said, is that 110 employees simply isn’t enough.

“When we went in and looked at numbers, we found we have enough drivers and attendants to deal with our normal activities,” Kucharaski explained. “But when you take into account the vacation and sick time that each employee has … every 10 employees (essentially) do the work of nine.”

“We need at least seven more people just so if everybody took all their time off (simultaneously), we could cover those folks,” he continued.

DEM is currently in the process of hiring those seven employees, most of whom will be stationed on the west side of Hawai‘i Island. They aren’t new jobs, just unfunded positions the department now intends to fill.

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To do so, Kucharski has to find between $300,000 and $400,000, which means cuts will be necessary to DEM’s approximately $52 million annual budget. Of that total, about $38 million is dedicated to solid waste management.

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No final decisions have yet been made on what DEM will cut, as the hiring process is ongoing. Filling the jobs is a deliberate endeavor, and Kucharski said there isn’t a specific timeline for when each hire will be made. That also means there is no specific timeline for when Big Island residents should expect closures to revert back to the exception rather than the rule.

The situation is exacerbated later in the winter months, as workers are either required or encouraged to use up sick leave and vacation days, as only certain benefits roll over year-to-year. There’s also more holiday time off to contend with during November and December.

Under the stipulations of the union contract, neither Kucharski nor the head of the Solid Waste Division, Michael Kaha, can force anyone to work extra. They can ask employees to work overtime, but it’s a personal decision for each man or woman.

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“The problem arises not always in how many people we have,” Kucharski said. “If we have seven drivers working one day and five call in sick, which can happen because the flu goes around and people work together, we have an obligation to call everybody not working that day and ask them to work OT. If we don’t get enough people off saying they’ll come in and work, then we’re stuck.”

Hilo transfer station. File photo.

The director anticipates he’ll need additional employees beyond the seven DEM plans to fund to ensure a consistent, reliable delivery of the services the department has promised the community it will provide.

That will be an issue with the next fiscal budget, for which DEM will either ask the mayor to request new positions for its Solid Waste Division or will have to make hard choices on what services/jobs to reduce or ax completely.

In his most recent budget proposal, Mayor Harry Kim asked the Hawai‘i County Council to approve 10 new employees for DEM. Those positions were approved, however, they’re all designated to help run the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant and won’t alleviate transfer station closures.

Even if DEM manages to get all the additional solid waste positions it’s looking for, Kucharski said, the extra manpower might not be enough to mitigate all closures.

“Having additional positions will not guarantee we’re not going to deal with closures,” explained Kucharski, adding that even if they have 15 drivers on staff, there may be certain occasions when 12 of them have vacation and/or sick days that line up. “The rules are rigid. We’re looking at alternatives and things that we can do.”

He said discussions are too premature to release any details on alternative plans.

In the meantime, the department prioritizes certain disposal of certain types of waste over others. The 23 transfer stations offer different services — some take green waste, scrap metal and/or white goods (appliances, etc.), while others don’t. But all stations accept household waste, which means it’s always at the top of DEM’s to-do list.

“The No. 1 priority is always getting that household waste to the landfill and not sitting there putrefying,” Kucharski said. “That’s why the majority of the shutdowns that you see are for green waste (and the like), because it can sit there for a day or until the next time the transfer station is open. Solid and municipal waste can not.”

DEM is also being careful not to over staff because of budgetary concerns, Kucharski said. The $52 million the Council sends the department annually represents close to 10% of the entire County budget.

Despite that, DEM is currently hiring for solid waste positions. Those interested in applying can find the relevant information online.

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