Volcano blasts through county budget

  • This combination of satellite images provided by DigitalGlobe shows an area by the Kilauea volcano near Pahoa, Hawaii, on May 24, 2017, top, and May 14, 2018, bottom, after the recent volcanic activity. (Satellite Image ©2018 DigitalGlobe, a Maxar company via AP)
  • Managing Director Wil Okabe holds a press conference Tuesday afternoon in Hilo. (Nancy Cook Lauer/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — It’s all hands on deck during a lava emergency, and there’s plenty of overtime, too.

Overtime is just one of the costs associated with the current volcano crisis, with county staff from all departments pitching in to help the Civil Defense Agency handle hundreds of phone calls from concerned residents as well as juggle media inquiries, hold press conferences and churn out a myriad civil defense radio messages and press releases.

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Then there are road crews, police and fire departments, facilities managers, parks workers and everyone else who can be called in to lend a hand.

“People are working 12-hour days,” Managing Director Wil Okabe said Tuesday, allowing a thread of exhaustion to weave through his normally ebullient speaking voice.

Okabe said staff are also volunteering time to pitch in during the crisis.

Mayor Harry Kim, who is recovering from an April 26 heart attack, is still logging the hours as well, although he’s reduced them somewhat, Okabe said.

The emergency costs might blast through the county’s carefully crafted budget, but it’s really too early to say, Finance Director Deanna Sako said. The County Council is scheduled to take up the 2018-2019 budget Tuesday.

The $518 million spending plan relies on increases in property values, landfill tipping fees and housing grants to reach its new historic level, a 5.5 percent increase over last year. No property tax increases are planned this year, but the fuel tax will ratchet up by an additional 4 cents.

The budget, for the fiscal year that starts July 1, can be amended at any time by the mayor, with council approval.

Overtime costs alone added more than $700,000 during the much smaller 2014 Pahoa lava emergency, with 75 percent of that reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We have instructed departments to track their time for federal reporting and reimbursement purposes,” Sako said.

Because of the payroll cycles, initial overtime figures won’t be available until the end of the month, Sako said. Depending on how long the emergency lasts, expenses of all types could continue piling up.

The county borrowed $20 million in bonds to help with construction costs during the 2014 lava crisis.

The county has a $6 million emergency fund set aside for just such events, but Sako said the county doesn’t want to deplete it, because more emergencies are possible, after the current crisis is over.

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The FEMA reimbursements are welcome, but they don’t happen right away, Sako said. Plus, in a tight budget and major crisis, even 25 percent of costs can be hard to cover.

“It’s something we’ll be talking to the County Council about next week,” Sako said. “We know it’s going to have an impact.”

  1. LOL in Kona May 16, 2018 5:32 am Reply

    And the mayor needs another raise
    …this is soooo stressful
    and the council needs more money for their friends (in salary-only)
    non-profits, etc
    Yes, they need lots and lots more money!!
    (have water yet? Might have to lay off police, fire!
    …will charge you to put in septic!! [permits? those were sooo last year]
    …and the poor little leeches, loafers, and druggies might be naughty.)

    Yep, raise taxes!
    Never let a good disaster go to waste!

    After all, they get huge pay to “take care of” such things!


  2. guest May 16, 2018 8:27 am Reply

    Working 12 hour days, everyone wants another raise! 6 million emergency fund but they don’t want to deplete for an emergency, whats the point? Seems another tax increase is in order. When they take 100% of everyone’s earnings, will it be enough? The county has an obsession with raising taxes!


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