Ballot initiative requires more public input prior to raises

  • Sue Lee Loy

HILO — A charter amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot adding more transparency to how top county officials get raises took its first step forward Tuesday when the County Council Finance Committee voted 9-0 to advance the measure to the first of three council votes.

“It gives the checks and balances to the people to give meaningful comment to the Salary Commission, who will hopefully take those comments and readjust,” said Sue Lee Loy. “They’re the ones who are going to pay the bills and they need a seat at the table.”

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Lee Loy’s proposed amendment, Bill 98, slows down the approval process to provide safeguards for the public by requiring, at least 30 days prior to the approval of any salary adjustment, public notice of the proposals in at least two daily newspapers in the county, a public hearing videoconferenced so both east and west Hawaii residents can participate and a “detailed report” of how the commission reached its recommendations, which would be open for public inspection.

In addition, any proposed increase or decrease of more than 10 percent would be subject to a two-thirds affirmative vote of the entire membership of the commission.

“There’s definitely no harm in putting this to the voters,” said Puna Councilwoman Jen Ruggles.

Council members were quick to assure the Salary Commission their vote was no reflection of the difficult work commissioners undertook.

“They did their job, they did it right, there’s no question about that,” said Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara, who said she was “shocked” by the size of the raises and disappointed that there was no advance notice of the amount of the raises.

The commission in the past three months gave double-digit raises to top county administrators as well as the mayor and County Council members. It based decisions about raises as high as 40 percent on the length of time since the last raise, whether subordinates were making more than their bosses and by comparing salaries with Maui and Oahu.

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung said he sympathized with the commission, but “if you could not operate in a vacuum,” it would make it easier for elected officials to set budgets. The commission didn’t take the county’s financial straits into account, after being told by Finance Director Deanna Sako that there was money in the budget for the raises.

With the council currently mulling a half-cent increase in the general excise tax, the public has been focusing on the latest round of raises, which add at least $1.3 million to the $491 annual operating budget.

“It couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Chung said, adding that he supports incremental raises more often, rather than coming more rarely in big chunks.

Salary Commission Chairman Hugh Ono said the county charter gives the commission the authority to set salaries.

“We don’t need anybody’s permission,” Ono said.

“Salary is an issue in finding people to fill these appointed positions,” Ono added. “The Salary Commission has resolved a long-standing problem.”

Ono, responding to what Chung called “eye-popping” raises, defended the decisions, saying the largest ones were given to officials who hadn’t had a raise in 10 years. He said a 40 percent raise over 10 years amounted to just 4 percent a year.

But, of the 36 positions whose salaries are controlled by the Salary Commission, 25 received mostly double-digit raises just four years ago.

One of the biggest raises this year went to Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela, whose salary went up by $42,982 or 39 percent, to $153,226. That position last received a raise in late 2013, when the salary went up 11.3 percent to $110,244.

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County Council Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter got a 32.8 percent raise to $77,017, and other County Council members got 34.6 percent more, to $70,008. Council members last got a raise in 2014, with the council chairman getting an 11.5 percent raise to $58,008. Other council members got 8.3 percent raises, bringing their salaries to $52,008.

Mayor Harry Kim got a $30,581 raise, or 23.2 percent, to $162,581. In 2014, the mayor received a $22,848 raise, or 20.9 percent, bringing his salary to $132,000.