Lava recovery wish list scaled down by county

HILO — A decision on a whether there will be a special session of the state Legislature to consider disaster relief funding appropriation, especially for Puna communities impacted by lava from Kilauea volcano’s lower East Rift Zone eruption, needs to be made soon.

Roy Takemoto, executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim, said Tuesday that he thinks a decision by legislative leaders on whether to recommend such a session “is imminent.”

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Gov. David Ige has the authority to convene a special session. Also, the presiding officers of both houses are required to convene the Legislature in special session at the written request of two-thirds of the members of each chamber.

If a special session isn’t called, the county will have to wait until the 2019 regular legislative session to ask lawmakers for money to help Big Islanders recover — not only from lava, but from damaging floods brought on by torrential rainfall from Hurricane Lane.

Takemoto said that following a Sept. 5 meeting with House leadership, the county scaled back its funding request for immediate needs through the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2019, as well as its second-tier priorities, which are for state-funded initiatives that don’t include federal funding.

He said House leadership asked the county “to recheck our priorities and make sure that they are high priorities. And, number two, to check with the governor’s office again and see how much of that they could fund.”

“When we took a closer look at the (top-level) priorities, we reduced that almost in half, to 6 (or) 7 million (dollars),” Takemoto said. “And when they took that number to the governor’s office, they said they could probably find the money to fund us. So that took it out of the immediate ask of the Legislature.

“Then, we took a closer look at the phase two projects and … focused on what was really the higher priorities for phase two. When we did that, the number that would be a request to the state fell to about $140 million, which is kind of in line with what they approved for Kauai for just flood damage at $100 million last year.

“When we got it down to $140 million that seemed to be more of a reasonable ask.”

Takemoto said the county’s amended request “still preserves all the options we’re looking at for housing, but we definitely would be not as ambitious.”

In addition, Takemoto said the county is working to organize a housing fair for November. He said such an event “would allow the displaced households to get information as well as those who have vacant property who would be interested in building an ohana dwelling … for disaster population for affordable housing needs, as well.”

One item Takemoto said was removed from the county’s previous wish list was $189 million to buy out private property owners in areas either inundated or isolated by lava from the eruption, which started May 3 and went into a lull in early August. More than 700 homes, all in lower Puna, were destroyed.

“That has all been pushed back, because the comments from the House leadership is they probably wouldn’t put state money towards buying anybody out in (lava) zones 1 and 2,” Takemoto said. “So any kind of significant compensation would probably be dependent on federal funding.”

Takemoto and state Sen. Russell Ruderman, who represents Puna, said if a special session is convened, another issue to be hashed out would be an expansion on what the county could spend the $10 million that it expects to collect from a quarter-cent surcharge on the state’s general excise tax, which starts Jan. 1.

“By expanding it, that would really help us help ourselves,” Takemoto said.

As it stands, that money can only be used for transportation and mass transit projects.

Ruderman said he remains hopeful there will be a special session.

“It has to be by mid-October, so time is ticking on that,” Ruderman said. “And I’m hopeful that we’ll do that, so we can provide the county money and any legislative relief that they may need.”

Another issue is whether a redevelopment agency to oversee the rebuilding of Puna areas ravaged by lava could be established, as a section of state law specifies that a county can only have one redevelopment agency in operation at a time.

“We’re unclear right now whether the law allows that, or if we would have to change that law or if we would have to … maybe make the Banyan Drive (Redevelopment Agency) include other areas,” Ruderman said.

Takemoto said the county also is hopeful for a legal opinion on the issue from state Attorney General Russell Suzuki.

In addition, a special session also certainly would include requests for relief for areas statewide damaged by flooding from hurricanes Lane and Olivia.

A third tier of initiatives Takemoto identified for the county’s recovery, but won’t immediately be taken to state lawmakers, is for projects that would require federal funding.

Takemoto said the county has a meeting scheduled for Thursday with the state’s congressional delegation to help Hawaii’s federal lawmakers prepare an appropriation request for a Community Development Block Grant Program Disaster Recovery grant.

“It’s a special appropriation that Congress needs to make. They’ve done it for Florida and for Houston …,” he said, referring to large federal grants made to help those areas recover from hurricanes Irma and Harvey, respectively.

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“It’s a very wide open grant to help a community recover in a way that is smarter … so they don’t repeat the kind of damages that they had in the past.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.