I would like to clarify my position on the .5 percent general excise tax surcharge that is currently before the Hawaii County Council.
In a West Hawaii Today story Feb. 14, I was characterized as saying the tax surcharge is the only feasible path to fix our mass transit system. The surcharge would address those needs, however, it is not the only feasible path and must be considered in balance with the impacts the surcharge would have.
My constituents in West Hawaii already deal with a higher cost of living compared to the rest of Hawaii Island, and the higher cost is compounded by taxes. Higher property values mean higher property taxes. Higher excise taxes mean higher cost to build a home or improve it, which in turn raises values for neighboring properties. Higher excise taxes means families spend more on groceries, and taking this money in taxes takes it away from the local small businesses that keep our residents employed.
The Hele-On Bus system has served our island since 1975, providing a critical link for thousands of our residents to get where they need to go. The hard-working staff, drivers and mechanics of our Mass Transit Agency have kept the system going in recent years even as our buses have fallen into disrepair. They deserve our support, and our community deserves a transit system that serves our island well.
But raising taxes again is the easy way out of this jam, and my colleagues and I were not elected to make the easy calls.
Before I can support any additional increases in taxes, I want to see the administration explore other options to better fund our mass transit system. These other options may not provide as immediate of a fix, but may have less of an impact on our community as a whole. Full fare for any one-way Hele-On ride is currently $2: that’s Kmart to the airport, or Kalapana to Kailua. How about a fare structure that reflects the distance traveled?
Upon full implementation, the general excise tax surcharge is projected to collect $25 million a year. Yet over the next two years, the Mass Transit Master Plan proposes increasing the total Mass Transit Agency budget by only $1 million a year. Where will the balance go?
Our community was promised long-awaited road improvements paid for by the increased fuel tax: repaving Lunapule Street, Mamalahoa Highway from Kainaliu to Konawaena School, and improving routes to school for our keiki at Holualoa Elementary, just to name a few. I would like to see action on those projects before considering yet another tax increase.
There are more questions than answers when it comes to this general excise tax surcharge, questions that need to be answered before I can support it. My colleagues and I would also like to hear from you. Please call my office at (808) 323-4267, email me at email@example.com, or come to our public hearing at 5 p.m. Feb. 20 and council meeting at 9 a.m. Feb. 21, both at the West Hawaii Civic Center.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Hawaii County Councilman Dru Kanuha represents Kona, District 7.