PONC percentage protected: Charter Commission kills ballot proposal

  • A fresh water spring, which the county purchased with PONC funds, leads to the ocean at Kawa Bay. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — A charter amendment that would have cut the annual open-space preservation set-aside from 2.25 percent of property tax revenues to 1 percent will not be on the 2020 ballot, following a failing vote Friday by the county Charter Commission.

The commission voted 4-5, killing the proposal that would have reduced the fund to 1 percent and give the County Council flexibility to suspend the set-aside in emergencies by a two-thirds vote.

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In other action, the commission advanced a charter amendment that creates a dedicated staff position to administer the fund.

Commissioner Paul Hamano urged the commission to allow the amendment to go to the ballot so the voters could decide.

“We did have spirited debate,” Hamano said. “(There’s) at least an equal, silent majority that would want fiscal responsibility to be placed with the County Council and the Finance Department to have them prioritize and decide what is the appropriate amount.”

At issue is a philosophical debate balancing the power of elected officials to set budget priorities with the need to preserve environmental and open-space land and cultural artifacts. Several commissioners who voted yes said they wanted to give the concept more time to air out at a public hearing before deciding.

“Nobody denies the importance of providing open space or providing preservation services for the environment, for the lands that are on this island,” said Commission Chairman Doug Adams. “If we put it into the charter, it means voters want to take it out of the hands of our elected representatives. … That’s going to be more important than anything else … or at least as important as anything else in the charter and the council can’t do anything about it.”

Others didn’t need more time to decide.

Commissioner Kevin Hopkins said the commission is being “fed a bill of goods by the mayor.” He said administration claims that the county is short of money and needs to dip into the fund don’t hold water with him.

“We have so many other areas of the county that in my opinion are badly managed. … I find it to be ridiculous,” Hopkins said. “I respect the will of the people that has been demonstrated numerous times at the ballot box.”

“In my opinion, it shortchanges our children and grandchildren by severely hampering our ability to protect our irreplaceable lands,” said Commissioner Sarah Rice, who also voted no.

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.

As they have in previous hearings, testifiers again lined up to support the PONC fund at its current level.

“Our economy is the environment; our environment is the economy,” said Margaret Wille, a former County Council member.

“This is what the people want,” said Deborah Ward, a Sierra Club member. “This is what we’ve worked for all these years.”

The PONC 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 annually removed from the tax base.

There was $19.9 million in the preservation fund as of Jan. 31, with another $6 million annually expected at the current property value and tax rates. There was $2.9 million in the maintenance fund.

“We believe the reason the money is being stockpiled is there is nobody on board to administer the program,” said Debbie Hecht, the campaign coordinator who previously got the PONC measures on the ballot.

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A second proposal, which passed 10-0, aims to take care of that issue by dedicating a staff position to administering the fund, to be paid from fund proceeds. That proposal, Charter Amendment 9, will next go to public hearing before a second reading, and if it passes, to the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot.

A third proposal, which among other actions requires at least 70 percent of the fund be used for stewardship grants and expands the use of the money to include salaries and wages for nonprofit stewards, install and maintain shelters, toilets and paths and trails, was postponed to the March 8 meeting.