Hawaii County budget advances amid tree-cutting gripes

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HILO — The topic of the day Wednesday was Hawaii County’s nearly half a billion dollar annual budget. But the issue most on the mind of testifiers was the removal of a dozen trees from Kamehameha Park in North Kohala.

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HILO — The topic of the day Wednesday was Hawaii County’s nearly half a billion dollar annual budget. But the issue most on the mind of testifiers was the removal of a dozen trees from Kamehameha Park in North Kohala.

More than 60 people crowded into the community building at the park, with a dozen addressing the tree removal issue. A handful of people in other locations addressed other aspects of the budget, such as mass transit and feral cat removal.

The council approved the budget submitted by Mayor Billy Kenoi without any changes. It faces one more vote June 1 before going back to the mayor and goes into effect July 1.

The mayor’s proposed budget is $462.9 million, which is 5.5 percent higher than this year’s budget.

It adds 14 new positions, including eight new parks caretakers and recreation personnel to help care for the many new parks under Kenoi’s tenure. There are also new planners and a land use checker in the Planning Department and two Housing and Community Development specialists, as well as an account clerk for Mass Transit.

There are no increases in property taxes or user taxes or fees, but individual property owners may pay more taxes because of higher property values. The county is collecting $1.5 million more in property taxes countywide, thanks to higher assessments.

Finance Director Deanna Sako said the administration was able to balance the budget this year without raising fees, but it’s unknown if that will continue.

“We’ll probably need to consider something at some point in time,” Sako responded to a question from Puna Councilman Danny Paleka as to whether the gas tax will need to be raised for road improvement. The council recently rejected a one-half cent surcharge on the general excise tax to pay for roadwork.

Council members called Parks and Recreation Director Clayton Honma to the table to respond to the wave of complaints about the tree cutting.

Some 12 trees, including 40-year-old to 50-year-old monkeypod trees, have recently been cut at the park, either because they were overhanging a roof that was being replaced, or because their roots were causing pavement upheavals. The work is being done by county staff.

“The reason for the taking of these trees is completely bogus,” said resident Jonathan Brooke.

Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille asked if any more trees are going to be cut, and was told there may be a couple more.

“It does look terrible,” Wille said. “I really don’t want you to cut down any more trees without some interaction with the community.”

“We’re not cutting down every single tree,” Honma replied.

Each council member is allocated $90,000 for a contingency fund to dispense to nonprofits and government agencies for specific needs. In addition, $1.5 million goes to grants in aid to nonprofits.

Council members resisted an attempt by Paleka to take $20,000 from each district’s contigency fund as well as $50,000 from a vacancy in the Clerk’s Office to give $230,000 for a para-transit program to give disabled riders door-to-door service as required in a lawsuit settlement.

“This is going to affect the whole island,” Paleka said.

Mass Transit Administrator Tiffany Kai said it’s not yet known how much the service, which right now is just for Hilo and Kona, will cost. Bids will be opened Friday, she said.

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Paleka withdrew his amendment, giving him the opportunity to resubmit it if needed after the bids are opened.

In addition, the council approved on first reading the mayor’s $184.1 million capital improvement budget, after adding a series of amendments for new projects in their districts. The CIP budget is basically a wish list, and funding is not guaranteed.

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