HILO — Kohala Councilman Tim Richards wants to zero out Mass Transit’s general fund budget, leaving county officials wondering how they will keep the buses running at all, much less on time.
Richards’ amendment to the county’s fiscal 2018-19 budget will be heard at 9 a.m. Tuesday when the County Council takes up the budget on first reading. His is the first of two amendments to the $518 million spending plan filed so far by council members, who are expected to offer more amendments when the measure hits its final reading early next month.
The Mass Transit Agency relies on about $4.6 million in general fund revenues, which come from property taxes. The remainder of its $15.7 million budget comes from federal grants and the highway fund, which is supported by fuel taxes and license and permit fees.
Finance Director Deanna Sako said Friday that the amendment, if it passes, could put the county in a tenuous position with federal grants and its paratransit service for disabled riders. She said she’ll confer with the mayor and county civil attorneys if it passes.
“There’s only certain things we can rebalance,” Sako said. “I think it would be very difficult to find that amount out of the highway fund.”
Worst case scenario, Sako said, transit staff would be laid off and bus trips reduced or stopped.
Richards wants to put $630,000 of the $4.6 million into the council’s contingency relief accounts, which would give council members $100,000 each to spread around their districts.
Another $1.9 million would go for salary and wages for the Police Department and $1.9 million would go for parks maintenance. The remaining $150,000 would go to the prosecuting attorney for an agricultural crimes project.
Richards responded only in general terms to his reasoning behind the amendment, saying he has a responsibility to provide constituents the “best possible fiscal oversight” of the county budget.
But his conversation got heated in April 18 budget hearings with Mass Transit Administrator Maria “Sole” Aranguiz.
Richards said he was “bothered, bothered deeply” that Aranguiz didn’t seem to have taken into her next year’s plan recommendations of a $500,000 study the council ordered for a long-term master plan for the bus system. The plan offers year-by-year recommendations for the next 10 years, but the recommendations can’t be funded within the existing budget proposed by Mayor Harry Kim.
Richards was also upset that Aranguiz, who started in February, didn’t attend a community meeting in Waimea about the master plan or contact him to meet him before the meeting.
“If you’re going to be the director, you’ve got to take ownership of the plan, and I don’t hear you owning the plan,” Richards told her. “It’s not that we don’t need a bus, we do. But we’ve got to have confidence in the leadership that we’re actually going to get what we are expecting.”
Aranguiz said her presentation did track the master plan as best it could with the available funding, although she didn’t mention it directly. She said her first priority is getting the buses running on time to increase ridership.
“”I deal with reality, I don’t deal with dreams and possibilities if they’re not concrete,” Aranguiz said. “Right now, we are trying to maintain the services with the resources that we have. … There is a limit on the improvements we can do without any additional resources.”
The only other amendment filed by press time Friday was one by Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, who proposes to remove $100,000 from tourism marketing and put it in an account for Banyan Drive redevelopment, increasing that account to $150,000.