Kenoi bumps up the budget: 5.5% increase in $462M plan mostly for salaries, benefits

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HILO — Higher property values are enabling the county to bump up its spending plan this year by $23.9 million — or 5.5 percent — according to a preliminary budget released Tuesday by Mayor Billy Kenoi.

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HILO — Higher property values are enabling the county to bump up its spending plan this year by $23.9 million — or 5.5 percent — according to a preliminary budget released Tuesday by Mayor Billy Kenoi.

The mayor, in his last year of office because of term limits, is continuing his focus on building and maintaining county parks, creating a legacy for the future. But fixed costs such as salaries, benefits and debt repayments are eating up most of the new money.

There are no increases in the property tax rate in the $462.7 million budget, but individual property owners should expect to pay more because of increased property values. Tax revenues from property taxes are expected to increase 7.9 percent.

“Even during the years of budget challenges caused by the recession, we continued to invest in county infrastructure while restricting spending and coping with increased employee health-care costs and other expenses,” Kenoi said in his budget message.

As was the case in previous years, raises negotiated with employee unions at the state level, primarily for police and firefighters, are absorbing the bulk of the new money. Salaries and benefits for county employees account for $15.6 million of the increase.

The budget also adds six new positions, including one new land use plans checker. The other five positions are for parks caretakers and recreation personnel, to help care for the many new parks under Kenoi’s tenure.

“This budget represents those efforts to control the size and cost of government while continuing to maintain essential police, fire and other core county services,” Kenoi said.

County Council Finance Committee Chairwoman Karen Eoff, responding during a busy Tuesday of council committees, said the council members just received their copies of the budget and haven’t had time to scrutinize it.

“The next few months will be busy for the council,” Eoff said. “We will hold special meetings of the Finance Committee and the council to hear from the mayor and county departments to better understand their budgetary needs in order to provide services to our residents and visitors.”

Public safety accounts for the biggest chunk of the county budget, at $138.6 million, or 28.6 percent of the total. It’s slated for a 3.4 percent increase this year.

Police in 2013 received about 16 percent increases in raises over five years, and firefighters received about 18 percent during collective bargaining and arbitration at the state level.

An entry-level firefighter currently earns $50,304 annually in base pay, according to county Human Resources Director Sharon Toriano. An entry-level police officer makes $57,144 a year, according to the Hawaii Police Department. Officers also receive night differential pay and time and a half for holiday work and overtime.

As of Tuesday, there were 405 employees covered by the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers and 350 covered by the Hawaii Firefighters Association.

Debt service on bonds for new projects shows the biggest percentage increase in the budget. That figure, akin to monthly payments on a mortgage or credit card for individuals, shows a 19.4 percent increase, to $43.9 million next year.

The capital improvement budget includes 55 projects at a total appropriation of $144.8 million. About $85.8 million of that will be funded by bonds, $20.8 million by the state revolving loan program, $36.3 million by federal grants and about $2 million by private contributions.

Property taxes are by far the biggest source of revenue for county government. The county’s share of the transient accommodations tax on hotels and short-term lodging is second, set this year at slightly over $19 million. The county also brings in revenue from state and federal grants, interest and user fees.

“There will be no cutback in services,” said Lisa Miura, deputy director of the county Finance Department.

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The County Council will undertake a department-by-department analysis of the budget April 13-15 as the individual department heads come before them to explain their program budgets.

The mayor is scheduled to submit a final budget proposal in early May. The council has until June 30, the last day of the fiscal year, to amend and pass a budget or the mayor’s budget automatically goes into effect July 1.