Discretionary funds on chopping block: Mayor wants to eliminate program; council members defend it

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HILO — A debate over how Hawaii County Council members should use their discretionary money could be renewed as Mayor Harry Kim proposes to cut the expenditures in the next budget.

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HILO — A debate over how Hawaii County Council members should use their discretionary money could be renewed as Mayor Harry Kim proposes to cut the expenditures in the next budget.

Council Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter said she wants to try to keep the Contingency Relief fund intact but thinks the rules need to be changed.

She noted the original intent of the fund was to cover county expenses in the council districts that weren’t budgeted, such as replacing a scoreboard at a county park. It later was amended to allow council members to disperse the funds as grants to nonprofits, which make up the bulk of how the funds are spent.

“We’ve gone astray from that, and we have been using it more as a county grant opportunity for nonprofits,” said Poindexter, who represents Hamakua.

The county has a separate fund, which has a more thorough vetting process, for nonprofit agencies that serve those in need. She said she would support increasing funding there and restricting contingency funds to county projects or programs.

“If we do fight for the contingency, can we bring it back to focus?” Poindexter said. “As chair, I’m looking forward to a healthy discussion.”

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung said he can see both sides of the argument, but he is comfortable with the way the funds are used.

He said he sees the contingency money as a way to balance power between the mayor and council, or between council members.

“The County Council doesn’t have much money to work with to begin with,” he said. “It levels the playing field.”

Chung acknowledged there might be perceptions that it’s used to help council members get re-elected. But he said those perceptions are wrong.

If council members gain goodwill by spending the money in their district, then that’s just a byproduct, Chung said.

“Every action we take on the council will have either a negative or positive effect,” he said. “This one just has to do with money. Of course it has to have a positive effect. … It’s not designed that way. And it hasn’t been exercised that way.”

The contingency fund is $810,000 in the current budget, or $90,000 per council member. Kim proposes to eliminate the fund to balance the budget in the next fiscal year that starts July 1. He is proposing to maintain the separate $1.5 million fund for nonprofits.

The contingency funds can used in two ways. The funds either go to a county department to use, or they are passed through a department to a registered nonprofit.

Each expense needs council approval.

A review of contingency fund expenditures since 2015 shows a high number given to nonprofit groups for uses, including parades and other cultural events; citric acid for combating coqui frogs; little fire ant abatement; grad night programs for local high schools; homeless shelter beds; conferences and workshops; miscellaneous support for nonprofits, such as money for rent or supplies; and even sports uniforms. Hundreds of small grants were dispersed.

Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff said she sees the funds as an efficient way to have an impact on the community. She cited grants she approved for the West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery and playground equipment at a housing project as examples.

“I think that I appreciate being able to direct funds into my community,” Eoff said.

Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David had a similar perspective.

“If everyone is cutting, that’s our opportunity to help out our district,” she said.

Former Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi previously tried to amend the contingency fund so that it only can be used for county expenses, such as for park facilities or other infrastructure needs.

He said Thursday that he still sees that as the best approach.

“What I didn’t like was when it was going to the nonprofits,” said Onishi, who left the council in December after reaching term limits. “Because to me there is an avenue for nonprofits to go and apply to get this funding through the county grants.

“We, as council members, didn’t know if the money was used for what it is supposed to be used for.”

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He said council members also felt they had to vote for each other’s proposals so that their own would get approved.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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