Less stringent PONC fund advances

  • PONC Commissioner Rick Warshauer testifies before the Charter Commission about the public land buying program in Hilo Tuesday.

HILO — A proposed ballot measure reducing the county land fund from a minimum of 2 percent of property tax revenues to a minimum of 1 percent was advanced Friday by the Charter Commission, over objections from fund supporters.

About 20 people, including two former County Council members, volunteers who worked to get the Public Access Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission on the ballot, Sierra Club members and a member of the commission overseeing land purchases, pushed to leave the fund as it is, rather than cut it by half and allow the County Council to suspend it in emergencies or when too much money accumulates.

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“All in all, (the proposed amendment) is a poisonous arrow aimed at the heart of the people’s PONC program,” said PONC Commissioner Rick Warshauer, speaking on his own behalf and not for the commission.

Two top elected officials, however, warned that automatically taking 2 percent of property tax revenue removes flexibility, is not sustainable during tight budget times and could lead to tax increases.

“The hardest thing to do of any kind is to raise property tax … with limited revenues and growing expenses, it’s not easy,” said Mayor Harry Kim. “Yes, I do support the reduction of 2 percent … I think 2 percent is just too much on our limited funds.”

Kim said important land purchases have been made and can still be made with or without it being dictated in the charter.

“We don’t need a law that tells us this is important,” he added.

County Council Chairman Aaron Chung said he originally voted to put the fund issue on the ballot, but he’s reconsidered his support. He noted that the land fund is the only fund that comes off the top of the property tax revenues, while items in the remainder of the budget are prioritized based on need.

“It’s wreaking havoc on our county budget. … It will also at some point result in a tax increase,” Chung said. “If you like tax increases, then keep it at 2 percent.”

The Charter Commission, by an 8-1 vote, advanced the measure, Amendment 7, after removing what some saw as the more onerous portions. Commissioner Michelle Galimba voted no.

“We all want what’s best for Hawaii Island,” she said. “The really important part of the PONC fund is it leverages other funds. I support making it as strong as possible because it’s our legacy for our grandchildren and our great-great grandchildren.”

Some commissioners pointed out that half of the land on Hawaii Island is already zoned as conservation. Hawaii County’s 2 percent land fund is twice as high as the next highest county, they added.

“It is just the minimum. … It’s up to the council if they want to appropriate more,” said Commissioner Christopher Roehrig. “They’re not locked into doing 1 percent. … If they saw this great piece of property and they wanted to buy it, they can buy it. … Nothing is stopping them.”

The commission clarified that 1 percent is a minimum rather than a set percentage, and it removed a provision where the County Council could suspend deposits to the fund if it accumulated to a certain amount.

Remaining in the amendment is wording allowing the County Council, by a two-thirds vote, to suspend the fund if the finance director determines in writing that the suspension of the appropriation is “necessary to prevent a reduction in the level of public services.”

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. Proponents said Hawaii County is the only county with the restrictive clause in its land fund laws.

The proposed changes have a long way to go before they make it to the 2020 general election ballot for a public vote. The proposed ballot measure 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.

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The fund, administered by the PONC 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 Nov. 30, with another $6 million annually expected at the current property value and tax rates. There was $2.9 million in the maintenance fund.

  1. KonaLife December 16, 2018 7:02 am

    The problem is not the 2%, it’s the other 98%! Focus on that! The taxpayers/voters of Hawaii Island have voted for the 2% fund, and now eight members of the Council at the behest of one mayor show their arrogance and hubris by saying they know better.


    1. Scooby December 16, 2018 7:34 am

      Not old Harry, he’s looking for more money to hand out raises to his lazy no action staff.


  2. Nuu Faasofa December 17, 2018 8:07 am

    Would the voters have voted for the 2% if they were given all the facts before they voted on it? I recall this thing being presented as a “motherhood & apple pie” feel-good item (“Save Da Aina!”) but there was no mention by the 2% proponents (and the media) about what would have to be given up (“Eh, who needs cops, or buses, or adequate county staffing as long as we SAVE DA AINA!”) in order to carve a chunk out of the little pie that funds those county services that we all want/need/demand.

    All this thing has turned into is a nice slush-fund for incompetent land developers to dip into to get bailed out of from buying property they shouldn’t have bought in the first place.

    Maybe a do-over (re-vote) is in order; this time with proper/adequate pros & cons presented.


    1. KonaLife December 17, 2018 9:10 am

      Yes, the voters were ignorant of the “facts” and have no right to say how they want their tax money spent. Hogwash! To suggest that voters were duped is just insulting to the tens of thousands of people who voted THREE TIMES for the PONC fund.

      We knew darn well that 2% of our budget would be used to save special places and that’s what the collective “we” want. Sure, that would be 2% less of the budget for County workers’ salaries, but that still leaves Mayor Kim and the Council 98% of the taxes to spend. Focus on the 98% if you’re worried about “adequate county staffing”.

      Mayor Kim and the Commission he appointed will lose again if this goes on the ballot. It’s a waste of time and an insult to those who believe in the right of the people to tell the government what it wants.

      Do we need to vote a FOURTH TIME before the Mayor get it? Seems like he doesn’t trust the will of the people.


      1. Nuu Faasofa December 17, 2018 11:05 am

        All I’m saying is it’s hard for said people to make an informed decision when presented with only half an argument — an ill informed decision is still…an ill informed decision.

        Regarding “Will of the People,” the last time this went to the voters, it was given a thumbs-up by roughly 36,000 voters. That’s out of a population (2012) of 189,000 (19%) who ALL depend on county services, whether that be fire-rescue, law enforcement, senior services, public trans, building permits, pot-hole patching, etc., etc. It was not a majority of our county-services-consuming populace that decided to carve millions off the top for a “nice to have” versus a “have to have” (next time a burglar lurks in my back yard, I’ll be sure to ring-up the PONC commission).

        And again, the folks who seem to be laughing all the way to the bank are the folks who sell their (otherwise tough to dump) lands to the government.


        1. KonaLife December 17, 2018 11:21 am

          Again, you don’t seem to think the people of Hawaii Island who voted for this THREE TIMES deserve the respect of honoring their decision. I may be a bit idealistic, but I do believe when the people speak, the government should listen.

          You can spin numbers, but 36,000 people who voted for the PONC fund on the third time is 63% of votes at that time. That’s a huge majority. But, of course, you claim that these 63% were duped and ill-informed. Hard to believe that line of reasoning. It’s also insulting to those 63% of voters.

          Why not focus on the 98% if you’re worried about County services? That’s where the $$ is.


          1. Nuu Faasofa December 18, 2018 6:29 am

            Unfortunately you are right…the voters are easily duped and ill informed.

            Regarding mosquitoes, $33.9 Million in county PONC expenditures since this thing was enabled is quite the big mosquito. With a tight budget and high demand for services, counting every penny (all 3.393 billion of them) is only prudent.

            Regarding focus: we can only do what can be done. Revising the % withdrawn from RPT is do-able. Knowing how (and why) government is funded strongly indicates that hoping all politicians, and most importantly, all government workers and us-guys who utilize county services, are going to re-evaluate and re-allocate the remaining 98% of the revenue stream is tilting against windmills.

            In the meantime, the guys who sold their (otherwise unsaleable) lands to the county are still laughing all the way to the bank.


          2. KonaLife December 18, 2018 10:14 am

            So, if $33.9 went into the PONC fund, over $1.6 billion (yes, that with a “B”) was received and spent by the County over the same period of time. That’s 160 billion pennies! Seventy percent of that went to County workers’ salaries and benefits, about a billion of that.

            I believe the Mayor has to know he will fail again if this is brought to a vote. (He’s fought it tooth and nail at every junction so far.)

            The voters’ will has been expressed three times, by large margins, and there is little chance of changing those numbers.

            I believe he’s just using this to set up a patently false dichotomy–reduce the PONC fund percentage, or we’ll have to raise taxes. Of course, it’s a ridiculous assertion as 98% of the budget–the elephant in the room– is still within his the Council’s control.


          3. Nuu Faasofa December 19, 2018 5:31 am

            I don’t think he will fail this time…both sides of the argument are being covered/presented this time around…as we speak.

            I think this particular thread is getting stale; moving on…Aloha!


        2. 4whatitsworth December 17, 2018 4:56 pm

          The problem with your argument is that so far I have seen no correlation between the county budget and county services. We just went through huge tax and fee increases and the only result was that county payroll went up astronomically.

          It would be wonderful if you could simply fund the common good and create a better place. This is frankly a very good example of that not happening. There were three votes to set aside this money for the common good and now the county wants to redirect it into their pockets or make the case that we need yet another tax increase. This type of BS is exactly why people are starting to leave Hawaii.


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