HILO — Despite concerns about the growing cost of county employees, Mayor Harry Kim’s proposed preliminary budget adds 72 new positions.
That’s the biggest jump in county positions since former Mayor Billy Kenoi sought 30 positions in 2015, and a significant increase over the 15 added in 2016 and seven Kim asked for in 2017. Kim did not request any new positions last year.
“I don’t blame people for being disturbed about the number, but if they look at where the positions are going, where the funds are coming from and how long (county departments) have been waiting, I think it will make sense to them,” Kim said Monday.
The County Council Finance Committee has scheduled department-by-department briefing sessions for April 16-18, where agency heads justify their requests, or ask for changes from the preliminary budget proposed for their specific department.
The majority of the proposed new hires, 42 in all, are for the Police Department. That was Kim’s priority for the fiscal year that starts July 1 after hearing numerous citizen complaints about crime. Their salaries and benefits will come from the general fund, which is backed mostly by property taxes.
Twenty of the proposed police positions would be police field officers to be split between Puna and Ka‘u, and a police field officer for traffic enforcement in Kona, but there’s also nine sergeants, one lieutenant, five dispatchers, one supervising dispatcher, two evidence specialists, two information systems analysts and one records clerk.
Council members seem to agree on the need for more police officers, but two said they’d be looking closely at other position requests.
“Justification and funding of these new positions will be of prime interest and concern to this council and the people of this county,” Finance Committee Chairwoman Maile David said. “I look forward to full, open and transparent discussions during our budget and departmental review processes.”
The $573.5 million budget proposed Friday by Kim is $55.5 million, or 10.7 percent, higher than this year, and won’t raise property taxes, but relies on increased property values and an assortment of other taxes and fees. That amount is expected to increase by another $12 million or so when the general excise tax increase recently approved by the council kicks in Jan. 1.
The budget includes $26.1 million in additional salaries, wages and benefits, most due to state-level collective bargaining agreements and mandated contributions to retirement funds. About two-thirds of the county budget is eaten up in employee salaries, benefits and retirement.
The council and administration have noted that most of those expenses are outside county control. As the county workforce ages and retirees live longer, it’s placing an increasing burden on local coffers.
That concerns Kohala Councilman Tim Richards, who has repeatedly questioned the administration on the growing cost of government.
“Am I supportive of the police? Yes,” Richards said. “But it’s not just the payroll. It’s the whole budget. … For the short-term, it may be OK, but my concern is the long-term.”
Kim said he pretty much leaves the details of the departments’ budget requests up to the chiefs, in collaboration with Finance Director Deanna Sako, although he does sign off on them.
Of the other position increases, a hike in sewer fees is expected to pump up the Environmental Management Department’s Wastewater Division by 10 employees — six in Kona and four in Hilo. Positions range from sewer plant operators to engineers to analysts and a program manager.
Four new positions in the Mass Transit Agency are in accordance with recommendations from a mass transit master plan that was completed last year. The positions, an administrative services assistant, garage supervisor, automotive mechanic and a temporary account clerk, are expected to be paid from the county general excise tax surcharge.
Seven new positions are in store for the Planning Department, to enforce the county’s new transient vacation rental ordinance. The positions, including three planners, two planning inspectors and two land use plans checkers, will be paid from a new account subsidized by vacation rental application fees and fines, estimated for the 2019-20 fiscal year at $846,000.
The Department of Parks and Recreation could get six new positions, including one park caretaker each for Hamakua, North Kohala and Puna, as well as a recreation technician for Puna and a clerk and an account clerk in Hilo.
Kim said Parks and Rec staff increases are needed because of an increase in the number of parks and also because more maintenance is needed to clean up debris left by homeless campers.
In addition, one pool lifeguard each in Kona and Puna will be converted from half-time to full time, a pool lifeguard in Hilo will be converted from three-fifths time to full time and a recreation technician in Kona will move from two-fifths time to full time.
Rounding out the proposed list one new information technology systems manager for the Information Technology Department.
The county has 2,457 full-time equivalent positions, according to the county’s 2018 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.