WHT editorial: Kim’s absence showed us a lot

For the record, Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce executive director Wendy Laros did a nice and nimble job hosting the chamber’s 2018 Focus Luncheon with the Mayor and County Leadership without the mayor, who canceled last minute in order to fly to Honolulu and testify in support of more money for Hawaii County.

The state House of Representatives Finance Committee on Thursday took up a bill proposing counties receive a bigger chunk of the transient accommodations tax, which, if passed, would net Hawaii County $12 million more than the $19 million it takes in now.

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The back story of the hotel tax, or TAT, as it’s called, goes back years.

In a nutshell, it was agreed that as a way to get through the Great Recession, Oahu would get a bigger chunk of the pie that’s divvied up each year. The agreement said when times got better, counties would get the old amount back.

Times have improved, yet Oahu is keeping the bulk still, with some now going to pay for its rail project. Mayors of all the counties hate the hand they’ve been dealt and ask the Legislature every year for a return to when times were more fair.

This year, suddenly, the bill is making headway.

And Kim did right by ditching obligation and jumping over to Oahu to beg, shout, plead and lobby on its behalf.

The county needs the money. Kim’s $515.7 million budget cuts out several services, but also includes fee hikes, while paying for raises to top officials.

In all, employee salaries and fringe benefits account for 64.4 percent of the county’s planned spending, and next year’s outlook isn’t any better. That’s because salaries and raises aren’t going to do anything but go up. Officials say that’s because those collective bargaining agreements are negotiated at the state level, where the counties’ votes are always outnumbered by the state.

We’d say it’s because everyone at the negotiation table benefits from raises, but that’s not the point here.

Kim’s absence meant the floor belonged entirely to county department heads, who were good-spirited mixing it up with the crowd, but whose answers were telling.

Services in many areas are hurting, several department heads said, because they don’t have enough employees.

Say what?

Today, there are an estimated 198,449 residents on the Big Island being served by 2,479 county employees.

Yet, there’s still a shortage?

Deputy Police Chief Kenneth Buggado Jr. told the crowd it’s difficult to keep officer positions filled. Often young hires are taken aback by how much work is involved, took the position purely for financial security or are just using it as a stepping stone in their careers.

“The newer generation,” he said, before pausing for a few moments. “They’re a little different.”

The department is down dispatchers, too, an issue many other departments across the country are facing. It’s a stressful job.

And, over at the parks department, there’s a lack of lifeguards. Director Roxcie Waltjen said they’ve exhausted all their hiring options for new ones.

“If one person calls in sick, we have to close the pool,” she said.

The planning department has a similar problem.

It only has three planning examiners on island, so permit requests can get backlogged, planning director Michael Yee explained.

“They have sick days to take, they have vacation days to take,” he said, adding to the theme that the slim staff is hamstrung all the more when coworkers take time off.

“We hear you loud and clear,” he added. “There are a lot of complaints.”

Those long waits at the DMV? That, too, is because of a lack of manpower.

Wil Okabe said the strong economy has made it an employee’s market, so retaining talent in the motor vehicle department has proven difficult.

The department heads all pledged they were working to address the issues, and thanked the public for its patience. They also asked the public for help easing the strain as the process eases along.

People can have their permit application filled out completely and correctly before turning it in to the county, as to spare everyone the time of having to kick an incomplete form back. If any community group wants to help the parks department with ideas on how to keep the pools open, “please do give us a call,” Waltjen said, “we’re open to it.”

It all made for a strange message. Employees make up a bulk of the half billion budget that had to slash programs to balance the books, yet they don’t have enough on hand to keep the pool open if you want to swim on your lunch break.

It’s a juxtaposition we’re not sure the county knows how to address, either, and any ideas on how to help them fix it are welcomed. We hope they do. We’re pulling for them. We’re just not betting the mortgage on it.

It all leaves us with Kim’s absence at the luncheon, which, by all accounts, are usually quite festive. It shows the mayor’s taking the issue seriously. As well he should.

Kim’s luncheon speech was planned to be over his vision for a peace park atop Maunakea. It’s a vision he says will show the world the power of community coming together for a greater cause.

It’s a lovely idea, sure. But it’s a daydream right now and should be prioritized as such. The budget is crafted, the council is considering a possible GET tax increase, and then who knows what waits for us next year.

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Talking dreams just didn’t seem appropriate.

Lobbying for hard dollars, however, did. Because there’s a lot work yet to be done here.