Little interest in county budget

HILO — Apparently, it’s not how the county spends the money, it’s how it raises the money.

A public hearing on the 2019-20 budget drew little interest Monday, but 70% more property owners are appealing their assessments than last year. Some 343 people are appealing their property assessment, compared to 203 last year.

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The sole testifier at the public hearing was Dwight Vicente, a frequent testifier who says he represents the Hawaiian Kingdom. He disputes the county’s claim to lands for tax purposes.

“The question is whether the county has jurisdiction of both sides of the great divide,” Vicente said, referring to ceded lands and crown and government lands.

Mayor Harry Kim wants to add 93 new positions in a $583.9 million spending plan that’s 12.7% larger than last year’s budget. It relies on fee increases and a general excise tax surcharge rather than an increase in property taxes, which were last raised in 2017.

Kim has allocated money in the budget to remove seven holiday closures of transfer stations and landfill operations. And, $6.5 million in salaries and wages was added to reflect estimated increases coming from collective bargaining and arbitration with the county’s public employee unions.

The council will take up the mayor’s budget on first reading at a special council meeting Wednesday, where council members begin to pick through the spending plan and ensure their own priorities are addressed. Once passing second reading in June and approved by the mayor, the budget goes into effect July 1.

There are few proposed amendments filed so far, but more are expected on second reading, when the council is likely to work late to finish the plan.

Council Chairman Aaron Chung acknowledged that few people typically attend the public hearings on the budget, which is mandated by county charter. He said he’s unsure what to make of the apparent lack of public interest.

Council members are taking a close look and most are wary of increasing spending. But they have also heard from department heads that say they’re strapped for personnel and equipment to do the job constituents are asking of them.

“Basically this is what the departments have been asking for, not just this budget season but every budget season,” said Finance Committee Chairwoman Maile David. “Everybody says they have an inadequate number of staff.”

The county as of June 30 had 2,457 full-time equivalent employees, down slightly from the 2,479 the year before, according to its comprehensive annual financial report.

There are no increases in property taxes planned, but some are feeling the pinch of an average 4.4% increase in property values, which now total $33.4 billion.

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Real Property Tax Administrator Lisa Miura said values generally increased because of increases in market value, a shift of very small agriculture lots to the residential class and removal of agricultural tax breaks from those not in compliance with the rules.

Agriculture zones and hotel/motel class saw the biggest loss of values, but some of that is under appeal, Miura said. Most of the appeals come from the Hamakua district, she said.

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