HILO — How much of the budget should the county set aside for preservation and open space land purchases each year?
It’s a question the Charter Commission is grappling with as it ponders amendments to be placed on the 2020 ballot. The commission meets once a decade to consider changes to the county charter, the county’s fundamental governing document.
All proposals must be approved by voters in order to be included in the charter, which takes precedence over county code and ordinances.
A four-member committee of the 11-member commission is recommending the county trim the current minimum 2 percent of annual property taxes earmarked for the Public Access Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission, known by the acronym “PONC.”
Three of the committee think it should be cut to 0.5 percent, while the fourth thinks it should be 1 percent, the committee said in an Oct. 1 report.
The full commission did not discuss the committee report at its meeting Friday. But Mayor Harry Kim is hoping changes can be placed on the 2020 ballot.
Kim would like to see more flexibility, so the county could issue bonds instead of using cash from property taxes for purchases. He’d like to use some of the fund to maintain current county parks. He’d also like to see language eliminated that requires the county keep the land in perpetuity, rather than being able to turn it over to the state or federal government for a park.
“I think you will see that this administration has always supported the protection of special lands,” Kim said. “Our position is not to take away from the principle of protecting special lands; we know that it is very important.”
But former South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford, who worked with constituents to get the land protection measures on the ballot, sought a “hands off” approach.
“To pass any of these changes that the Charter Commission is even considering defeats the will of the people,” Ford said. “If we don’t buy these land parcels now, they won’t be available in the future. … We need to be able to get to our mountains, our seashores, our shoreline and not have the public stopped by private ownership.”
The fund has so far purchased 14 properties totaling about 4,451 acres, at a cost of $39.34 million, with about $10.5 million coming from outside grants. The property accounts for $21,818 worth of property taxes removed from the tax base.
There was $19.6 million in the preservation fund as of Sept. 30, with another $6 million annually expected at the current property value and tax rates. There was $3 million in the maintenance fund.
Cutting the fund to 1 percent could pay for an additional 30 police officers, the committee noted as an illustration of how freeing up some of the money could improve county core services.
The 2 percent PONC acquisition fund, and a separate 0.25 percent for maintenance of the purchased properties, are the only taxpayer money taken off the top, before the budget process begins.
“Hawaii County’s rate is by far the highest in the state,” the committee said in its report. “Recent fiscal challenges have demonstrated the need to consider the appropriateness of this minimum 2 percent rate.”
Oahu and Kauai each earmark 0.5 percent for property acquisition, while Maui earmarks 1 percent, according to the committee’s research.