Salaries, wages and benefits could gut 2% Land Fund

Yes, the 2 percent amount for the Land Fund will remain intact, but a seemingly innocuous amendment submitted at the last minute by the Kim administration via Charter Commissioner Kevin Hopkins would subtract salaries, wages and benefits for staff from the money available for acquisition. This would deplete the land fund, not strengthen it.

Right now, there is $19 million stockpiled in the fund and almost $3 million in the maintenance fund. Why? There is no dedicated staff to work on acquiring properties, finding matching funds and helping the nonprofits that are the “boots on the ground” to get funding. There is not a staff person dedicated to work only on the 2 percent Land Fund program.

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To strengthen the land fund, we proposed:

“Fund a senior staff person dedicated only to the administration of the provisions of this section, who shall be employed under the Department of Finance and whose duties shall include, but not be limited to: assisting the public with applications for acquisition; assisting the public access, open space and natural resources preservation commission with its prioritization of properties to be acquired; negotiation and acquisition of eligible properties; seeking and acquiring matching funds; and managing the maintenance of lands acquired by this fund, by overseeing and implementing the provisions of Section 10-16 of this charter. This position shall be distinct from and in addition to any other positions that provide support for the provisions of this section, Section 10-16 of this charter, and Article 42 of the Hawaii County Code or any matters related thereto.”

Here is the language proposed by the Kim administration:

“Pay for the salary, wages and benefits of staff dedicated to advancing the activities contained within this section and Section 10-16 of this charter.”

The Kim administration amendment sounds good, but ask these questions:

1. How many staff member’s salaries, wages and benefits is the Kim administration talking about deducting from the Land Fund? The word “staff” is ambiguous and could mean two, three or more staff persons. Remember, this money is subtracted from the 2 percent Land Fund and will reduce the money available to purchase properties. This is a back door way to take money from the fund to pay for staff positions in the Department of Finance.

2. Will the staff members work full time on only the 2 percent Land Fund? No! Commissioner Sally Rice asked, “Could they be pulled off if there was an emergency?” Head of the Finance Department, Deanna Sako answered that yes everyone is all hands on deck in an emergency. That is what happens now when there are flooding problems, hurricanes, winds, earthquakes, tsunami and lava events, which are common occurrences. How will we monitor their hours and what is deducted from the 2 percent Land Fund in salaries, wages and benefits?

3. Why do we need a full-time staff person dedicated only to the 2 percent Land Fund Program? There are important contractual deadlines on real estate deals for land. What if there is a closing deadline or a due diligence deadline and the staff person is pulled off for other duties? What if a willing seller needs to close within a certain amount of time? Does the head of Public Works stop all their work to go help in an emergency? No, they keep their workers on task to keep the business of the county going. The county has only purchased 14 properties in 13 years. More than 160 have been proposed. There is much work to do.

4. This does not get one staff person dedicated to administering only the 2 percent land Fund, which is what we are asking for. There is already a paid staff person provided for in the Hawaii County Code to assist the commission. This depletes the monies, which are needed to obtain matching funds, and money for acquisition with no guarantee that they will work on the 2 percent Land Fund Program.

5. The 2 percent Land Fund is a very important, voter-mandated program and should be treated accordingly, not to pull people off to relocate cattle or do inventories for Public Works. That is why the money is not being spent on land acquisitions or stewardship grants.

This is the start of a “Just say ‘No’” campaign. Remember, if 63 percent of voters show up for the fourth time at the polls, it would mean the 2 percent Land Fund would just default back to the provision in the charter that we have now.

How can you help?

1. Attend Charter Commission meetings and testify on March 8 and April 12 at 11 am.

2. Attend public meetings in your area and take your friends and neighbors. We have to start educating people for the 2 percent Land Fund campaign. The commissioners are saying over and over they want to hear from the public. Please show up!

• March 25 — Kohala, 6 p.m. at the Old Court Building.

• March 29 — Naalehu at the Community Center at 6 p.m.

• April 1 – Pahoa Community Center 6 p.m.

• April 2 — Honokaa Gym at 6 p.m.

• April 3 — Kona Council Chamber 6 p.m.

• April 4 — Hilo Council Chambers 6 p.m.

3. You can also send an email to the Charter Commission and tell them your thoughts. Charter.commission@hawaiicounty.gov.

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4. Want to learn more about the 2 percent Land Fund Program? Go to https://debbiehecht.com/2019/01/15/2-land-fund-program-at-the-charter-commission-as-of-january-142019/

Debbie Hecht, Save Our Lands Citizens’ Committee Campaign coordinator since 2006, is a resident of Kailua-Kona.