HILO — Members of the county Charter Commission are having second thoughts about a ballot measure reducing how much of the county’s budget must be used to buy land for preservation.
After hearing often emotional testimony from about 30 people, the commission Friday voted 7-3 to advance an amendment that essentially reverts the fund back to status quo, requiring a minimum of 2 percent of property tax revenues be put in an acquisition fund and 0.25 percent be put in a maintenance fund. Then it rescinded the vote and left the matter pending.
“Based on the deluge of public opposition to this, I feel this is more than I can ignore,” said Commissioner Sarah Rice. “The opposition to this charter amendment is overwhelming and I am not going to assume that I am wiser than the public. … Preservation of open spaces is critically important to the future of our children and this island.”
All of the testifiers supported having the 2.25 percent taken off the top before the county creates its annual budget. The money is managed by the Public Access Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission, which goes by the acronym PONC, under three previous charter amendments stemming back to 2006.
Protecting lands and public access, especially to the shoreline, is a priority for the county in an era where so much land is being locked up by upscale developers, they said.
“Access is a joke,” said Leslie Fijima. “Those places are being developed for the exclusive use of people who have lots of money who do not live here.”
Proponents of the higher percentages said there are no guarantees that conservation land will remain protected from developers seeking rezonings, and county shoreline access requirements are often too little to accommodate real public access or they’re delayed for years.
Shannon Matson, vice chairwoman of the Hawaii County Democratic Party, juggled her infant as she spoke of the need to preserve public lands for her children and someday, her grandchildren.
Christopher “Topher” Dean, a member of the environmental caucus of the state Democratic Party, choked up and could barely finish his testimony.
“The gates go up and where is the nature, where is the natural beauty of our island?” he asked.
The past two mayors have opposed having their hands tied in creating a budget, saying they need flexibility during tough economic times and emergencies. Automatically taking 2 percent of property tax revenue removes flexibility, is not sustainable during tight budget times and could lead to tax increases, opponents say.
The Charter Commission, which meets just once a decade, is charged with looking at the big picture and making decisions based on the overall needs of the county, said Chairman Doug Adams. Once approved by the commission after a public hearing and two votes, the measures go to the County Council, which can’t reject or change them, but can offer alternatives to also be placed on the 2020 general election ballot.
“In the charter, that’s our mission and that’s our role. The fact that we have a lot of people interested in this charter amendment is great,” Adams said.
The prospect of higher taxes apparently hasn’t fazed public land supporters, though. Several testifiers pointed out the county has both budget stabilization funds and disaster relief funds to handle such eventualities.
“We’re always going to have emergencies here, but we’re not always going to have this land,” said Shannon Rudolph.
The amendment reverting the percentage, proposed by Commissioner Bobby Jean Leithead Todd, was made to a ballot measure the commission in December approved 8-1, cutting the fund to 1 percent of property tax revenues, with 0.25 percent of that devoted to maintenance. The amendment also removes a provision allowing the fund to be suspended during emergencies.
The amendment would, however, allow the removal of the requirement that the county keep the land in perpetuity, to allow the county to insert that clause during negotiations or turn property over to state and national parks for maintenance.
But the commission subsequently reconsidered its vote on the amendment and left the matter pending until its Feb. 8 meeting after the matter got bogged down in parliamentary procedure, which bars using an amendment to kill a proposal, rather than just voting the proposal down.