HILO — A proposal under consideration for the 2020 ballot would cut the county open space land fund by half and allow the County Council to suspend the fund in emergencies or when too much money accumulates.
The county Charter Commission discussed the proposal, CA-7, on Friday and will take it up again when it next meets Dec. 14.
A commission subcommittee made the recommendations, noting that Hawaii County’s current 2.25 percent fund is more than twice what other counties take from property taxes for land preservation. Oahu and Kauai each earmark 0.5 percent, while Maui earmarks 1 percent, according to the committee’s research.
A handful of testifiers opposed to the changes said they want to see the Big Island retain its natural beauty and not become overdeveloped in the way they see Oahu and Maui. Most of the testifiers are Sierra Club members.
“We need to beat developers to the draw. They had their way with other islands and now they’re coming here,” said Cory Hardin.
The fund, administered by the Public Access Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission, 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 annually removed from the tax base.
There was $19.6 million in the preservation fund as of Oct. 31, 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.
The proposal would use .75 percent of the 1 percent for land purchases and .25 percent for maintenance and upgrades. It would expand the use of the money for disabled access to properties and amenities such as restrooms.
And, it would allow the County Council, by a two-thirds vote, to suspend the fund if the balance exceeds 2 percent of the annual property tax revenue for that fiscal year, or the finance director determines in writing that the suspension of this appropriation is “necessary to prevent a reduction in the level of public services,” according to the proposal.
“Then we’re relying on the council, quote unquote, to do the right thing and the administration to, quote unquote, do the right thing,” noted Commission Chairman Douglass Adams.
The proposal also doesn’t include a restrictive covenant forbidding title transfer, meaning the county could pass along the land by donation or sale to another entity.
That worried Debbie Hecht, the campaign coordinator getting the open space fund on the ballot all three times it ended in a successful public vote. She warned there could be lawsuits from county partners in land purchases.
“If you allow the county to sell these lands, it’s sort of a slap in the face to voters,” Hecht said.
Members of the subcommittee said the current charter language goes above and beyond what should be in the charter — the foundational governing document for the county — rather than in the county ordinance or code.
The current language, said Commissioner Paul Hamano, is “not consistent with general charter language.” The new language, he said, is “streamlined, less restrictive while fiscally responsible and allows for checks and balances.”
The commission didn’t vote on the measure because five of the 11 members had drifted off or were absent as the clock approached 6 p.m. on a Friday before a Monday government holiday.
But it was clear members were divided on the measure.
“I’m somewhat conflicted on it because on the one hand, I support having additional funds in a higher amount,” said Commissioner Bobby Jean Leithead Todd.
But, said Leithead Todd, much of the land the county has acquired through the program is conservation land, which means development is restricted on it anyway.
“On this island, there’s over 1 million acres that’s already in conservation and you can’t really do a lot with that,” Leithead Todd said. “We’re taking lands that weren’t in any danger of development and just moving them from private to public.”
Leithead Todd added she wants to see stronger language in the charter about the suspension of funds in emergencies, so that it required “extraordinary circumstances” to reduce the fund, not just the finance director’s say-so.
The proposed changes have a long way to go before they make it to the 2020 general election ballot for a public vote. The proposal will be heard again Dec. 14, and, if favorable, next goes to first reading of the commission, a public hearing, a second Charter Commission reading and then to the County Council, which can’t kill the measure but is allowed to offer alternatives.