HILO — The county budget might be tight in other areas, but there’s still plenty of money to buy and maintain land for open space preservation.
A March 1 report of finances for the county Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission showed $16.2 million in the acquisition fund as of March 1.
That’s its highest balance since the fund was opened in January 2006, following a charter amendment seeking a percentage of property tax revenues be taken off the top for preservation.
Another $2.3 million is in the PONC maintenance fund, used to pay consultants and nonprofits to survey, upgrade and maintain the land, and other miscellaneous purchases, such as signs.
Some PONC commissioners and members of the public are worried the money could somehow be diverted to other uses. But, short of an amendment on the ballot voted on by the public to change the charter, that can’t happen.
“My concern is the fund grows faster than it can be spent, it’s just a tempting target to be raided,” Commissioner Rick Warshauer said Monday, urging the county administration to buy land faster.
The county has so far purchased 14 parcels from a priority list prepared each year by the commission. Another 16 have been proposed by the public for purchase so far this year.
The new list includes Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in Captain Cook, which has been put up for sale by owner Bishop Museum. The property includes three parcels with a total of 11.82 acres and is listed for $1.97 million. There are deed restrictions on the land detailing ethnobotanical use.
County Property Manager Hamana Ventura said two pieces of property from prior lists are now in escrow, with one set to change hands Wednesday. He wouldn’t identify the parcels since they’re in negotiation.
Mayor Harry Kim said Monday he won’t ask the County Council for a charter amendment to trim the amount going into the land fund, although he has gone on record opposing having the administration’s hands tied in establishing spending priorities.
Kim hasn’t ruled out, however, asking the charter be amended to allow more of the money to be used to maintain and improve the land the county has already purchased.
“I’m all for identifying precious land and buying it,” Kim said. “I wish I could use some of that money for development of the lands for public use.”
An email campaign has begun asking Kim not to use the fund to balance the budget. Kim said he couldn’t do that even if he wanted to.
But the mayor didn’t put the public at ease with his March 1 budget message.
“We currently have the highest percentage in the state going towards this purpose. The next highest county contributes only 1 percent,” Kim’s budget message said. “Currently $6.3 million is directed to this fund in the proposed budget. While maintaining precious lands on our island is important, this is a significant amount of money that goes towards this use that could not be used for our critical needs noted above.”
Any charter amendment would have to go before the council soon. The council would have to approve a resolution with ballot language and send it to the state Office of Elections by Aug. 23. Before that, there would have to be affirmative votes during three separate readings of a bill, a process that would take several months.
The land fund began after more than half of island voters cast their ballots in favor of setting aside 2 percent of property tax revenues to buy open space.
After former Mayor Billy Kenoi in 2010 suspended payments into the fund to balance the budget, voters approved a charter amendment requiring at least 1 percent of tax revenues go to the fund, rather than simply recommending it.
In November 2012, voters increased that minimum back to 2 percent and approved a new measure, this one to set aside 0.25 percent of revenues to maintain lands purchased through the fund.