Public offers mixed reviews of service as the cost of government grows

  • The bathrooms at Kailua Playground in the heart of Kailua-Kona are locked and in shambles.

  • Kailua Playground on Kuakini Highway remains overgrown and in disrepair.

  • A rusted lock secures the gate at the overgrown Kailua Playground basketball court.

  • Jaslyn Nathanial of the Hawaii County Planning Department goes over plans with John Hetherington at the West Hawaii Civic Center office. (Photos by Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • A sign on the door of Environmental Management at the West Hawaii Civic Center indicates no regular office hours. (Photos by Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Growth of county employee totals. (Source: Hawaii County Comprehensive Annual Financial Report 2017

HILO — Since 2000, Hawaii County’s population has risen by 33.5 percent. The number of county employees has increased by 27.6 percent.

But during that time, the county budget, adjusted for inflation, has doubled.

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In 2000, there were 2,053 county employees servicing a population of 148,677 at a cost of $175.8 million, or $249.4 million in 2017 dollars, according to a West Hawaii Today analysis of census data, county budgets and financial audits.

Today, there are an estimated 198,449 residents being served by 2,479 employees, with a price tag of $491 million.

The cost of employees is expected to increase in the preliminary county budget that Mayor Harry Kim is required to present to the County Council by March 1. But the number of employees may not.

“We can’t spend more than we take in,” Kim said. “I have said no increase. But I’m hearing from the public, they want more police. If we can squeeze extra from any agency, it would go to public safety.”

Higher taxes aren’t out of the question.

Future raise looming?

The state Legislature gave the counties authority to raise the general excise tax, or GET, provided they have an ordinance in place by March 31. Kim has sent a bill to the County Council, who’s expected to take it up Feb. 6.

Kim said he doesn’t like the tax, but he’s sending it to the council to keep the county’s options open as it works on a budget. Kim and the council raised both property taxes and fuel taxes last year.

A potential GET hike is estimated to raise anywhere from $25 million to as much as $40 million for Hawaii County annually. While the money can be used only for roads and Mass Transit, adding it as a revenue source could free up money spent on transportation for other projects.

Property taxes account for about 74.5 percent of this year’s general fund revenues, compared to 4.3 percent for the transient accommodations tax on hotels and short-term rentals. Another 5 percent was drawn from the fund balance, and licenses and charges for services accounted for 6.1 percent.

The Salary Commission raised top officials’ pay by about $1.3 million for the new budget year. Elected officials and department heads will see raises as high as 39.7 percent.

But that figure is eclipsed by $12.9 million in raises awarded to rank-and-file workers in the four major unions during state-level collective bargaining sessions last year. Employee wages and benefits now account for 62.5 percent of the $491 million county budget.

Payments on bond issues from prior years account for 12.5 percent. A state-mandated increase in post-retirement benefits other than pensions will bring next year’s county contribution to 15.35 percent of the general fund, compared to about 6 percent in 2006.

Bang for the buck

Are residents getting their money’s worth? Do county services run smoothly and efficiently?

It depends whom you ask. A question posed on Facebook on Wednesday drew a variety of responses.

“In many of my conversations with different people that don’t like what is happening my informing them that if they have a difference then register that difference with someone that can help to correct the problem,” said Floyd Eaglin. “I am constantly told about their fear of retaliation and their need to live on the Big Island.”

Some who responded wanted to praise certain individuals in specific agencies. Parks and Recreation received good marks. County Housing also received kudos.

“I have experienced only good positive attitude from Planning. Parks and Rec seem to be getting much friendlier in the last couple of months. (Public Works) has always been very helpful with me,” said Mark Hinshaw. “My attitude is, be kind and smile, even if they initially are not, they most-often come around. Being a sour sop does no one any good. Give aloha.”

“Our group gets together in county parks often for potluck parties and we reserve pavilions, sometimes months in advance,” said Sonia Martinez. “The employees at the County Parks &Rec office in the Aupuni Building are always friendly, smiling and very nice … even when you go to cancel a pavilion.”

But Martinez said there’s one area that’s sorely lacking — the availability of public restrooms.

“The dearth of public restrooms in Hilo is disgraceful … and the few there are, are either not kept or are locked. In case of emergency, it can be a real big problem and could be quite embarrassing (publicly) for the person who needs one in a hurry,” she said.

Members of the public on both the east and west side of the island repeated this lament. There are a limited number of restrooms, and the few that are available are often dirty and ill-kept, they said.

“The standard should be the immaculate bathrooms in the main county building in Hilo,” said Roger Christie. “They should be in many locations like that.”

Other residents wonder whether so many employees are necessary.

“I always remember going into the county tax office several times over a month-long period,” said Julie Grimmer. “Each time there was only one person working the counter and the rest of the room was employees at each others’ desks, talking story or looking at their phones. It was frustrating.”

The most complaints by far center on the county’s Hele-On bus system. Buses break down, they arrive too early or too late, the schedules are inconvenient, the buses are dirty, riders say.

“The bus does not stop in Shipman Business Park even though everyone working in Shipman Business Park pays for the bus,” said Jeffrey Gomes.

A master plan is in the works, a new Mass Transit administrator is scheduled to begin in early February and an infusion of federal grant money all promise to bring long-awaited improvements.

Target of major complaints

The county’s cumbersome website, where it’s hard to get information, and the use of automated phone systems in agencies such as a the Planning Department also garnered low marks.

Public Works, in particular the Building Division, is a frequent target of criticism. It can take years to get a permit, people say.

But builders and architects who must deal with the agency are reluctant to have their names used because they fear retribution. If you get on the bad side of a building inspector, for example, they can find many small things to cite in your building plans. Or files can get lost and projects delayed, developers said.

“It’s a total mess,” said a local architect who asked that his name not be used. “The people who play by the rules get penalized.”

Contractors and builders point out that building houses not only helps make housing more affordable by increasing the inventory, but it also puts more properties onto the tax rolls, raising the tax base and helping avoid future tax hikes.

Kim said he’s aware there are still problems in that area. He said every mayor who comes in tackles the problems by changing procedures, hiring more staff, implementing new software, even sharing the duties over more than one division.

He said the county’s working to make it easier for plans for kit homes to make their way through the system faster, as they’ve already been approved numerous times for other builders.

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It’s a balance, Kim said. On the one hand, he wants to make the system more efficient. On the other hand, the county worries about liability if an inspector or plans checker, hurrying to meet deadlines, misses something important.

“What architect’s going to sign off on it, who’d be responsible for everyone else’s work?” Kim said. “Every mayor, you want to make it better.”