HILO — A full 38% of the county’s proposed 2019-20 budget is eaten up by employee pensions, retirement, health insurance and payment on old debt, eroding the ability of the County Council and administration to pay for new services and initiatives.
Several council members chafed against the budgetary restrictions Tuesday as Mayor Harry Kim kicked off three days of council departmental budget reviews. Kim took a laissez faire approach.
“Each department was told to present to you as openly as possible their budget and justify their budget to you for review and adjustments if necessary,” Kim said. “It is not the administration that tells the departments what their priorities are and what their needs are. It’s up to the departments to justify their budgets.”
The proposed $573.5 million general fund operating budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is a 10.7% increase over this year. But it’s expected to go up in a revised budget Kim is scheduled to unveil May 5 because of additional revenue from a general excise tax increase that kicks in Jan. 1.
The council, sitting as the Finance Committee, had no specific questions for Kim, but had plenty for specific departments, even as several council members lamented the lack of what they saw as big picture planning. Council members said they want to see outcomes when public money is spent, not just outputs.
“We’re getting to what appears to be a very unsustainable model,” said Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy. “We need to start shifting to a better model.”
Kohala Councilman Tim Richards said the budget is 25% more than the budget when he took office less than three years ago. He said the main problem is the “silo that we lock ourselves into.”
“We’re looking at ways to be more efficient. I don’t know how were going to get there under this current budget processes,” Richards said. “What I’m looking for is a way to have better conversations and create those efficiencies we keep talking about, but we’re not having those conversations.”
Richards, along with Lee Loy, Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz and Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, are members of an ad hoc committee researching the budget in behind-the-scenes meetings. Any recommendations they make will come before the full council and be available to the public.
Finance Director Deanna Sako said some of the ideas council members brought up Tuesday are difficult to implement. Attempting to incentivize businesses into participating with the county in public-private partnerships could jeopardize bond funding, she said.
“We have to be cautious because it’s public funding,” Sako said. “We do have attorneys working on these types of things.”
Council suggestions for employees to share duties across departmental lines to increase coordination and make the government more efficient also drew doubt from Sako.
“We’ve tried in the past; some of those get held up by union issues,” Sako said, adding “I think in this administration, department heads do work more closely than other times.”