HILO — As the reality of the county’s budget crisis sank in Thursday, Mayor Harry Kim held an emergency Cabinet meeting seeking $5 million in cuts, and the Salary Commission voted to postpone discussion of a new round of top officials’ raises until August.
Kim, released from the hospital and back at work Thursday morning after suffering his sixth heart attack Saturday, said department heads are following his instructions to identify cuts in their budgets by the end of this week. He said he’s leaving the recommendations up to the departments in conjunction with the Finance Department, although he and the County Council have ultimate authority.
“The departments know their budget needs,” Kim said.
Kim, however, isn’t satisfied with many of the possibilities being discussed, such as closing swimming pools on weekends and curtailing hours for gyms and county facilities.
“Services to the public are the last to be cut,” Kim said.
The county needs to find $5 million to balance the annual budget that begins July 1, after property tax losses in lava-ravaged Puna lowered expected revenues. While the county is getting state and federal emergency funds, they can be used only for disaster response, not plugging budget holes.
About 75 percent of the $518 million operating budget is locked into salaries, wages, past debt payments and other items beyond county control, Deputy Finance Director Nancy Crawford told the Salary Commission. That means the county needs to trim 3.8 percent from the $13o million remaining in non-mandatory services.
The Salary Commission was scheduled to discuss a chart showing suggested raises for some department heads and deputy department heads, based on how much their subordinates make and what the other three counties pay for comparable positions.
Chairman Hugh Ono said raises made in union agreements since the Salary Commission last raised their bosses’ salaries have put some salaries out of whack. The commission’s goal is to have no subordinate make within 5 percent of a department head or deputy.
But Human Resources Director Bill Brilhante recommended the commission hold off. Double-digit raises as high as 35 percent went into effect March 1, at a more than $1.5 million hit to the budget.
“I recommend that we, as of now until the current budget situation gets more stabilized, I recommend we postpone future discussion and let the current budget situation work out,” Brilhante said. “There are still a lot of moving parts … I’m not sure it’s the appropriate time right now.”
The Salary Commission sets salaries for 33 top officials not governed by union contracts. Employee salaries and fringe benefits, negotiated largely at the state level, added $12.7 million this year.
Commissioner Milton Pavao pushed for a delay. The commission ultimately postponed the discussion until Aug. 23.
“I think with the ongoing disasters, expenses are just going sky-high,” Pavao said. “Given the state of the county, I think giving raises or even considering giving raises is premature.”
Commissioner James Higgins questioned the “optics” of raising salaries.
“In all the deliberations that have been going on … did anyone dare suggest suspending the more than $1 million in salaries that we approved?” he asked.
“We didn’t think it was an option,” Crawford replied.
Brilhante and Crawford cautioned against cutting salaries for department heads who have been working unpaid overtime at the Emergency Operations Center and elsewhere, responding to the crisis.
“It’s been a toll. The room is filled with department heads and deputies,” Brilhante said of the long hours top staff is putting in. “They do it without grumbling. … If you said ‘thank you very much but we’re going to reduce your salary…’”
The County Council has rejected property tax hikes and a general excise tax surcharge this year.
Crawford said layoffs aren’t being considered because it’s a complicated process allowing bumping rights and any savings wouldn’t be realized in time. She called employee furloughs a “remote possibility” that would require negotiations with all the affected unions.
It was easier to institute furloughs in 2010, because they were negotiated at the state level when renewing contracts, she said. This time, the county would have to go it alone.