GET hike coming to council

  • Wil Okabe. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — Are smoother roads and better buses worth an extra half-penny at the register? Or can the county accomplish it without having to raise taxes again?

That’s the question the County Council Finance Committee will try to answer Tuesday, giving the public its first chance to weigh in on the latest tax hike proposal — a one-half cent surcharge on the general excise tax.

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The Finance Committee takes up Bill 102, proposed by Mayor Harry Kim, at 10 a.m. Tuesday in council chambers in Hilo. The public also can participate by videoconference from the West Hawaii Civic Center, the Pahoa and Waimea council offices, the Naalehu state office building and the old Kohala courthouse.

Kim has appeared reluctant to support the tax. But after discussions with his top administrators, he’s reaching the point where he sees the need for the discussion, Managing Director Wil Okabe said Friday.

“He really wants to give the opportunity for options for the council to look at, and this is one of the options,” Okabe said.

Okabe said he, Kim and Finance Director Deanna Sako have a PowerPoint presentation to help explain the issue to the council and the public. The bottom line, he said, is the county needs money to fix its deteriorated roads and bus system.

“We realize we have to diversify our revenues,” Okabe said.

If approved after a public hearing and two council hearings, the tax hike would go into effect Jan. 1 and continue until it automatically expires Dec. 31, 2030.

The state Legislature allowed the county tax option during a special legislative session last summer, when it was approving a bill to bail out Honolulu’s troubled rail project.

Estimated to raise anywhere from $25 million to as much as $40 million for the county annually, the extra half-penny must be passed by the council and approved by the mayor by March 31, or the county loses its opportunity, at least until the Legislature gives it another chance.

Resolution 488 on the same agenda asks the Legislature to extend the deadline until Sept. 30.

The council struggled with raising the tax in the past. A similar bill was postponed indefinitely in 2016, when it became clear it was headed for a 7-2 negative vote. Council members seem equally hesitant this year, an election year following a year when the council and mayor raised both property taxes and the fuel tax.

Kohala Councilman Tim Richards had submitted a similar bill last month, but withdrew it when Kim introduced his own. Richards isn’t pushing for the measure; he just thought it needed discussion.

“I think we should at least have the conversation,” Richards said Thursday.

The GET surcharge can be used only for operating or capital costs for public transportation systems, including public roadways or highways, public buses, trains, ferries, pedestrian paths or sidewalks or bicycle paths.

But because the county currently pays for some of those projects partially through its general fund — paid by property taxes — the extra money could free up money in the general fund for other expenses.

Kim has generally said he opposes raising the GET because it disproportionately hits poor people.

“At this point, I don’t know whether I will push for it, or support it, but I will leave it open,” Kim told a legislative panel last month. “The excise tax is the worst regressive tax. We’re taxing again the people who can least afford to pay taxes … they pay more.”

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Kim did not return a phone message for further comment Friday.

But some council members, at a recent presentation of a plan to fix the broken Hele-On public bus system, seemed heartened that the GET money could go for improvements ranging from more routes to better buses. That would help the less advantaged, who rely on public transportation, they said.

  1. Scooby February 4, 2018 6:53 am Reply

    Where is Harry Kim? Got a huge raise and is no where to be found. Will Okabe is strutting around like he’s the Mayor.


    1. Rusty Da Clown February 4, 2018 4:43 pm Reply

      It’s Harry’s nap time. It’s okay though, Okabe got a raise too for all that “hard work” he does.


  2. KonaRich February 4, 2018 7:58 am Reply

    Just think, it will automatically expire Dec 31st 2030. That will be a plus, they won’t need it 12 years from now. Oh wait, I don’t believe I’ve heard of a tax or fee been expired unless the project was paid for, public transportation is an on going money pit. I know I’ll be watching how my council member votes and I’ll vote accordingly.
    Okabe said “we realize we have to diversify our revenue.” Now I’d like Okabe to explain to me how the GTE is a diverse revenue.


  3. 4whatitsworth February 4, 2018 10:19 am Reply

    “Kim has appeared reluctant to support the tax” WHT please do not perpetuate this lie, this is political B.S.. So far Kim has not met a tax or a fee increase that he does not like.

    The general fund is about 10x what the highway fund `is so it could actually use some additional funds however the Hilo crowd will more than likely find a way to put this revenue into the general fund and have it used for more raises and benefits or give it to a slush fund for union bus drivers.

    Property Tax up, gas tax up, fees up, service levels down it is time to through the bums out!


  4. angkoldoy February 4, 2018 11:12 am Reply

    “Regressive” is a government action to provide raises to managers and dept. heads without a critical analysis of their productivity.


  5. Rusty Da Clown February 4, 2018 4:43 pm Reply

    Before asking for more taxes, what is Harry Kim gonna do to control the cost of government, which he has always let spiral out of control?


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