Lingle takes hit in bottle audit
Her administration is blamed for inefficient operation of the redemption program
THE STATE'S bottle redemption program is in disarray, and part of the blame lies with Gov. Linda Lingle, the state auditor said in a report released yesterday.
"Whether the administration intended to obstruct the deposit redemption program or not, the administration's positions and actions had that result," state Auditor Marion Higa wrote in her report on the Deposit Beverage Container Program.
Higa said the program is in poor shape but not because of the way the law was crafted.
"Customers are bearing the consequences of poor management and poor implementation," Higa said.
The report also said accountants hired to do a financial audit of the program were not able to complete their task because of a lack of basic financial statements.
The state was unable to verify that the container deposits it collects from beverage manufacturers, bottlers and distributors are based on the actual number of bottled beverages they sold or that it was paying redemption centers for the number of containers people actually turned in, the report said.
The state has collected more than $39 million in bottle deposits and paid out more than $10 million in fees and redemptions as of June 30.
LINGLE DEFENDED her opposition to the so-called Bottle Bill but said she is committed to making the program work better and will be introducing changes.
"From the very beginning, we have said we felt the law was poorly drafted and difficult to implement," she said yesterday.
The Bottle Bill became law in June 2002. Lingle was elected governor later that year. The law requires that the state Department of Health run the program. Consumers began paying a 6-cent deposit per container in November 2004 and were able to redeem the containers for 5-cent refunds starting last January. (The extra penny on the deposit was for administrative costs.)
Instead of using the two-year lead time to hire staff to set up the program, the Lingle administration used its already overburdened department employees to research and support arguments for repeal of the law, the report said. The first program staff member was hired in October 2004.
WHEN REDEMPTION centers opened in January, people complained they opened late, closed early or were closed on days they were supposed to be open. People also complained of the centers' inconsistency, inconvenient locations, long wait times, poor customer service and general confusion of the redemption process.
The report attributes that to the department's lax and ineffective enforcement of redemption centers and a public education effort that started too late and sent the wrong message.
Lawrence Lau, state deputy director of environmental health, said the staff takes its responsibility seriously and fields hundreds of complaints. "I want to stress that this is a young program, it's still growing, has made tremendous progress in such a short time and will keep improving," Lau said.
He said the redemption rate rose from 20 percent in January to 85 percent in September. The rate compares the number of beverage containers sold and the number of containers redeemed. But both are based on unverified reports by beverage manufacturers, bottlers, distributors and redemption centers.
He said the department has drafted new auditing procedures to address the auditor's report, will hire more inspectors and do more field inspections.