$60M in disaster relief near

  • SAN BUENAVENTURA
  • KIM
  • CHUNG

HILO — A bill to provide $60 million in additional disaster aid to Hawaii County cleared four state House committees Friday with some strings attached.

Under an amended version of House Bill 1180, the County Council must approve expenditures, and the county administration must submit monthly reports to the state detailing how the money is spent.

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Of the $60 million, most of it ($40 million) would be through no-interest loans expected to be paid back by the federal government. Another $20 million would be a grant.

Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, who introduced the bill, referred to the additional requirements added Friday as being in response to constituents’ concerns.

“It’s basically to keep tabs to make sure the county is doing what they said they are going to be doing,” she said.

San Buenaventura, D-Puna, said the funds would be released immediately after the bill passes both chambers and is signed by Gov. David Ige. The committees also increased the amount of aid from $50 million.

The additional funding is on top of the $22 million Ige already allocated in response to last year’s Kilauea eruption, which destroyed 716 homes and left many still recovering.

It falls short of the $155 million the county administration has sought as part of an ambitious recovery program for lower Puna.

Mayor Harry Kim said he is “very grateful,” and that he thinks the amount can be put to good use.

“This ensures us that whatever projects we are going to consider, we will have the matching funds ready,” he said.

San Buenaventura said lawmakers aren’t moving forward with bills to provide $155 million because the county administration was never clear enough about how the funds would be spent.

“There were some funding requests there that the Legislature believed wasn’t disaster related,” she said. “It’s not part of the state’s job to provide for basic county expenses. That’s the county’s job.”

San Buenaventura added, “What I’m trying to say is we have asked them multiple times for what particular projects and how much. And all we keep getting are vague responses.”

She said the state has the option of forgiving the debt on the loans.

Kim said he takes responsibility for the county administration not doing a better job explaining its aid requests.

“We didn’t break it down clearly enough,” he said. “That’s our fault. I take responsibility for that.”

The bill will next be heard by the House Finance Committee.

At least three County Council members — Sue Lee Loy, Tim Richards and Ashley Kierkiewicz — attended the House hearing, along with Diane Ley, county Research and Development director, who represented the administration.

Council Chairman Aaron Chung thanked those council members and Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder for helping lobby the Legislature.

“This was a combined effort by the administration and the County Council unlike anything I have seen in the past,” he said. “I have never been witness to such an intense lobbying effort on a particular measure in my entire career.”

Chung added, “The general public will never know the amount of time and effort these individuals put forth in advocating for this relief package. We all recognize this was an islandwide, a No. 1 priority.”

There are other bills in the Legislature to provide disaster funding, including for a study to relocate the Pohoiki boat ramp and for Highway 132 restoration.

About 3 miles of Highway 132 were covered by lava, in addition to 4 miles of Highway 137 and 2 miles of Pohoiki Road.

Kim said the county is moving ahead with preliminary work to reopen Highway 132.

He said the federal government will help the county cover the cost of restoration, in addition to a temporary road to help residents get back to homes that remain isolated.

However, Kim said road construction won’t begin until a six-month waiting period lapses in April.

“Between now and then, we will do as much preliminary work as we can,” he said.

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The House committees to hear the bill Friday were Public Safety, Veterans & Military Affairs; Water, Land & Hawaiian Affairs; Housing; and Human Services & Homelessness.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.