KAILUA-KONA — Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim and Finance Director Deanna Sako fielded questions and heard statements Tuesday night from West Hawaii residents sharing their voices on a proposal to raise the county’s general excise tax by one-half percent.
The questions coming from the audience inside the County Council Chambers at the West Hawaii Civic Center, which were about half full, centered mostly on the county’s priorities as to spending the revenues a GET increase would generate.
As the night concluded, many in attendance said they remained undecided on whether they supported or opposed the tax hike.
“The scorecard is still out on that one,” David Blancett-Maddock said. “Right now, we only know that they want to raise a tax at a time when we’re already struggling with taxes. We know generally what they’re going do with it, but we don’t have specifics at this point, so I’m not one to write a blank check to my government. We need to know more.”
David Scholl echoed that sentiment, saying where the bulk of the revenue ends up will determine his position on the tax entirely.
Sako and Kim indicated that the county’s beleaguered mass transportation system would be the primary beneficiary of the millions of dollars the GET increase would raise, at least in the first year. They added, however, that prioritizing the bus system would free up funds from the county’s recent gas tax hike to enhance Big Island roadways.
“It seems to me there’s a lot more people using the roads than using the bus system,” said Scholl, who asked Kim directly how the tax would be used. “If it was 100 percent to the roads, I’d be in favor of it. If it’s 100 percent in favor of the bus in the first year, which is what I heard — he didn’t answer the question about subsequent years — then I’m 100 percent against it.”
Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha said the increase is the only feasible path to fix the mass transit system, improve roads and create safer school routes.
“In order for us to do all of that, this tax is necessary,” Kanuha said. “It’s fair to say that I’m still talking to the community on what is acceptable for them to support this.”
“The general sense is that (my constituents) don’t want to be taxed out of existence, but they also see a need,” he added. “These are all things they’ve been wanting for years.”
Kanuha said if the GET is raised, he would push for a decrease in property taxes, as he that tax impacts his constituency the most.
Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff, who was also in attendance Tuesday, said most of her constituency is opposed to the tax hike, adding she’s looking forward to more input from the community next week.
“If GET doesn’t pass, we need to find another way to fund the mass transit system,” Eoff said.
She added she might be in favor of a “slower approach” that considered incorporating alternative, more cost effective elements into the mass transit system like smaller buses or more vans.