HILO — A proposed charter amendment advanced Friday requires the county to sock away $20 million for disasters such as have hammered the Big Island in recent years.
The charter commission, on a 10-0 vote, approved Amendment 17 on first reading, requiring the county devote 1 percent of property taxes every year — currently about $3 million — for a disaster and emergency fund until the fund reaches $20 million.
The money could be used for disaster response, repairs, purchase of property to mitigate future disasters and paying operational expenses of the county if there’s a drastic drop in tax revenues because of loss of property valuations, among other specified uses.
Commissioner Bobby Jean Leithead Todd, who sponsored the amendment, said putting the requirement in the charter offers a level of protection from the money being used for something else.
”I know it creates budgetary problems and it potentially raises the specter of having to deal with real property taxes, salary, wages, retirement benefits and other things that you are required to pay into, but it is just that we live on an island that is kind of, I mean, where else can you have hurricane, tsunami, earthquake, lava flow and the other things like wildfires, that you have got to respond to,” Leithead Todd said at a Feb. 8 initial reading of the proposal.
Commissioner Sarah Rice agreed.
“Let’s say it this way — we have a crisis, and this allows the mayor some confidence that he has a pot of money to at least go into and make immediate repairs and help with whatever it is that has happened,” Rice said. “And also it seems to me that if we have this fund when we go to the state Legislature, it is not like we just have our hands out, but we actually have our own money to match with whatever we need to get from them or from FEMA.”
Finance Director Deanna Sako said a county ordinance was enacted in 2004 requiring the county put a minimum of $250,000 annually into a disaster fund. The county adds money back into the fund as it gets depleted, and there’s a target of $10 million but there’s no set minimum limit that must remain in the fund. The county has typically kept it around $6 million in recent years.
“You know we have definitely been hit with disasters and it is important and you know we have been funding, but to have that mandatory amount for anything, makes it difficult to budget especially in trying times, and so, it is just being restricted that that $3 million would go there right away before anything else,” Sako said. “I am more against setting a precedent that everything will be allocated out in our budget and there will be nothing left for the things we also have to do.”
Sako noted the charter currently requires the county to take 2.25 percent of property tax revenues off the top for open land purchase and maintenance, and if the charter keeps adding requirements, “after a while we can only set aside so many percentage points and we are at 100 percent and will there still be money left for police and fire, and all the other needs that we have to carry out for the county?”
The commission’s vote moves the measure to public hearings before the commission takes it up on a second and final hearing. The successful measures also go to the County Council, which can’t veto or change the amendments, but can offer alternatives to be placed on the ballot along with the Charter Commission measures. Measures that pass will go on the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot.