Official calls for cargo company review after virus request

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii (AP) — Hawaii’s consumer advocate has recommended that the Public Utilities Commission suspend a 2019 rate increase request for an ocean shipping firm seeking $25 million in federal coronavirus relief funds from the state.

State Consumer Advocacy Executive Director Dean Nishina also called for opening a proceeding to investigate the situation facing Young Brothers LLC, Hawaii’s only regulated interisland cargo company, West Hawaii Today reported Saturday.

Nishina, whose office is part of the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs Division, pointed to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its harm to Hawaii’s economy in calling for the rate review in a letter to the utilities commission.

Young Brothers President Jay Ana described the company’s financial situation as “extremely dire” in a letter to the Public Utilities Commission and state officials including Democratic Gov. David Ige.

The company employs 370 people statewide, and the $25 million in relief funds would keep the firm running through December, Ana said.

A disruption to Young Brothers’ service would likely affect island economies, especially those of smaller islands such as Molokai and Lanai that depend on the company’s tug-and-barge service.

The “drastic and evolving economic effects” of the pandemic have likely made projections for the company’s expenses and cargo volumes moot and no longer useful for determining “just and reasonable rates,” Nishina said.

Relief from a general rate increase may not address Young Brothers’ situation in a timely fashion, Nishina said.

“Continuing to process the current application without reassessing how YB’s general rate increase request should proceed would be a serious misallocation of the Commission’s and Consumer Advocate’s limited resources,” Nishina said.

An investigation should consider circumstances around the cargo company's access to financing, its most recent financial statement and an assessment of the effect of any changes in access to financing, Nishina said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. The vast majority of people recover.