Lava flow taxes county budget

The slow-moving lava flow from Kilauea volcano is costing more than frayed nerves.

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The slow-moving lava flow from Kilauea volcano is costing more than frayed nerves.

It’s also costing county taxpayers millions of dollars.

County officials still are tabulating numbers, but as of Oct. 31, the latest information available, the price tag was about $14.5 million, primarily because of construction costs for emergency access roads.

About $800,000 has been spent on miscellaneous expenditures, said Finance Director Nancy Crawford. She said the bulk of that expense was to re-fit the old Pahoa fire station, which was being used as a senior center, back for use as a fire station.

That gives the community a fire station on each side of Highway 130, in case that road gets blocked by lava.

A little less than $95,000 has been spent on overtime for county staff to deal with ongoing issues, Crawford said. That figure has been kept down with the help of the Hawaii National Guard and by having salaried administrative officials from all departments take shifts at the communication center and command post.

Because the lava flow has apparently, or at least temporarily, paused in its threat to occupied areas of Puna, county Civil Defense Administrator Darryl Oliveira announced Friday the communication center will close as of Friday evening, and the command post will close at 6 p.m. today, unless the lava flow again becomes a threat.

“It’s to try to preserve these resources for the future,” Oliveira said, “to try to be fiscally prudent with this because it is costing the taxpayers money.”

About 80 National Guardsmen were deployed beginning last month to staff checkpoints on Pahoa Village Road and to conduct roving patrols in five neighborhoods affected by the lava flow’s path.

The Guard has been invaluable, said Maj. Sam Thomas of the Hawaii Police Department’s Administrative Services Division.

“They help free up our patrol personnel,” Thomas said, “to make sure the regular patrols are kept up.”

Crawford and other county officials met with representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday to begin the process of applying for assistance paying the added costs.

County Council last month approved a resolution paving the way for a $20 million bond issue should it be needed to help pay the road costs.

The fits-and-starts nature of the lava flow, combined with earlier expenses from Hurricane Iselle, is playing havoc not only with county emergency planning, but also with forecasts on the impacts for the county’s current budget year that ends June 30. The administration already is working on a 2015-16 budget, with a lot of unknowns still in the mix.

Will property owners be looking at tax hikes to help pay the added costs?

“We don’t want to even speculate at this point,” Crawford said.

The county spent $3 million to open Government Beach Road, which was a one-lane dirt road, and to connect Railroad Avenue between Hawaiian Beaches near Pahoa and Hawaiian Paradise Park.

The latest project, reopening Chain of Craters Road where it was buried by past lava flows, could cost between $12 million and $15.5 million. It’s expected to be complete in early December.

Contracts with the construction companies doing roadwork in the area have not yet been made available to Stephens Media Hawaii, but Public Works Director Warren Lee characterized the winning companies as a “chop suey” of local contractors such as Goodfellow Bros. Inc., Isemoto Contracting Co. Ltd. and others.

The county was able to use less stringent laws awarding contracts because of emergency proclamations signed at the state and county level. The type of bulldozers and other heavy equipment played a part in determining which contractors to use, as did price and availability at short notice, Lee said.

Nearly 8 miles of Chain of Craters Road was buried by past lava flows from the ongoing Pu‘u ‘O‘o eruption. About 5.4 miles of that is within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The re-established unpaved road would be used as an alternate route for lower Puna residents should the lava flow cut off access by crossing Highway 130 and other routes farther downslope.

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If the other roads are cut off, a trip to Hilo from Pahoa would be about 64 miles by the Chain of Craters route, which would take residents through Volcano. It’s currently 17 miles via Highway 130.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.