Mayoral candidates tout less government, less spending

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KAILUA-KONA — Making Hawaii Island the breadbasket it was in antiquity — but also increasing modern jobs and shifting county employees into areas where they will be most useful. Those themes, along with reducing pollution and keeping a cautious hand on the purse strings dominated center stage as West Hawaii heard from eight mayoral candidates Wednesday evening.

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KAILUA-KONA — Making Hawaii Island the breadbasket it was in antiquity — but also increasing modern jobs and shifting county employees into areas where they will be most useful. Those themes, along with reducing pollution and keeping a cautious hand on the purse strings dominated center stage as West Hawaii heard from eight mayoral candidates Wednesday evening.

The mayoral forum Wednesday evening at Kealakehe High School was sponsored by the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce and Community Enterprises, and drew close to 200 people.

Marlene Hapai wanted to see more investment in emergency infrastructure for a county that can be threatened with more natural disasters at once than any other in the country.

“Only 35,000 people on this island can be serviced at any one time in an emergency facility,” she said.

In general, “we are not prepared,” Hapai said.

Hapai said there should be an increase in public-private partnerships and more engagement by department heads in grant writing. She would look to grants and partnerships to fund projects, and use local community development plans as a blueprint for moving the island forward.

“Each community knows what it wants,” she said.

Timmy Waugh, of Hilo, said his highest priority would be to reduce the wait time for building permits, which he said was ridiculous in comparison with the single-day turnaround in some other counties in the country. Waugh said he doesn’t want to see future generations saddled with debt, and county employees need to be repositioned to make better use of their time.

“Always streamline government,” he said. “In a lot of departments, you see people sitting around. In others, there is a line.”

The county should also focus on more legacy projects, such as a convention center for West Hawaii, Waugh said. Corruption must be rooted out of the sealed bid process and expanded police and fire are needed in rural areas, he said.

Eric Weinert Jr. of Papaikou sketched a vision where ecotourism and the island at its fullest agricultural potential would drive the economy here.

“When we live in this edible paradise, people will want to come here. Increasingly, people want to come here to get healthy,” said Weinert, who said that in many ways his role as mayor would be to support existing department heads, whom he said are doing a great job.

Improving roads in Kona and public transportation are also important, Weinert said.

Paul Bryant, of Papaaloa, said low wages were holding the island back economically, and he listed poverty as the single biggest issue.

“I feel the living wage is something the county needs to be focusing on,” he said. “More than 40 percent of the island uses EBT (food stamps). This is unconscionable on an island that should be producing its own food.”

Bryant said county infrastructure is in sad condition and the neglect should be addressed before new projects are undertaken. Police are undermanned, he said, and reassigning employees could be a way to increase efficiency at the county level.

“If you’re loved by your coworkers, that’s one thing,” he said. “But if you’re not, you’re headed out the door.”

Wally Lau said a sustainable economy and meaningful jobs rank as his highest priorities.

“Stay within your means, that’s what we were brought up with as a family,” Lau said.

The county needs to do a better job collecting fees and increasing some fees while looking at closing tax loopholes “for those who might not be paying their fair share,” Lau said. It’s important to encourage a culture of working together across departments, sharing personnel like plumbers and carpenters to help eliminate redundancy, and making the most of technology, he said.

Besides covering basic projects like water and wastewater, Lau emphasized a collaborative approach with each council member to determine the projects most appropriate to their constituents.

Pete Hoffmann has a problem with the more than a million gallons of wastewater that goes into a hole in the ground daily at the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant. While the county has tried to tackle the problem, the pollution continues, he said.

Hoffmann called for “a top-to-bottom review of where we are with personnel and what we think is important,” as well as analysis of whether employees are effective where they are stationed. Hoffmann wants similar but more frequent reviews of the budget throughout the year.

“That money is not mine to spend,” he said. “Government all too often think that once it collects the money it has to spend it. I don’t see it that way.”

The island must expand its agricultural investments so it can feed itself, Hoffmann said. The small business and education sectors must be grown and public-private partnerships must be increased to broaden the scope of affordable housing where county programs fall short, he said.

Harry Kim wants a thriftier county government.

“We’ve borrowed a lot of money over the past few years,” he said. “We’re at the maximum the county can borrow.”

Where money must be spent on capital improvements, wastewater and solid waste are good investments, he said.

“Your county taxes have been raised three times in the past five years,” said Kim, predicting that shock will register for a lot of people looking at their latest tax bill. “You should be prudent in how you collect, and very prudent in how you spend.”

As far as the role of government in improving the economy, Kim said, “we have to concentrate on infrastructure and the tax system businesses need to make sure we are attractive to them.”

Shannon McCandless said sustainability is a key issue on an island where people struggle with multiple jobs and spend time stuck in traffic instead of home with family. With a 5.5 percent increase in the county’s new operating budget, the need is not just for wise spending, she said.

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“We’re operating top-heavy,” she said. “We have so many people in appointed positions. We can get rid of some of them.”

McCandless said a grant writing position should be added to help bring outside revenue into the county coffers and reduce reliance on taxing island residents.

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