Big boost for nonprofits: Council votes to increase grants to $2.5 million

Athletes, family and friends take part in the annual Troy Barboza Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics April 19 in Kailua-Kona. Special Olympics was one of the nonprofits awarded a grant by the County Council this year. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)
TSA agent Mary Sulliban looks through a variety of food items provided by the Hawaii Food Basket Feb. 1 at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole. The Food Basket was one of the nonprofits awarded a grant by the County Council this year. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — Hawaii Island nonprofits could soon see a big boost in county grants, thanks to action Tuesday by the County Council.

The council voted unanimously to increase the annual mandatory minimum going to nonprofits from $1 million to $2.5 million, starting with the budget year that begins July 1, 2020. Bill 63 has one more reading before it heads to Mayor Harry Kim for signature or veto.


The current law sets the minimum at $1 million, but the mayor and council have been giving $1.5 million for years. Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, the bill sponsor, was originally going to increase the amount just to that, but then decided that wasn’t enough.

“This is something that has not been touched in 12 years, and it helps the most vulnerable in our community,” Lee Loy said. “I really think our budget can handle another $1 million.”

Other council members agreed.

“We save a lot of money in having these agencies out there taking care of things we should be taking care of,” said Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter.

The County Council annually selects grant recipients from a pile of applications submitted by nonprofits. The council forms an ad hoc committee of four members to conduct interviews and sometimes site visits and submit recommendations to the council.

“We know better because we’re a little closer to the communities,” said Kohala Councilman Tim Richards of the ability of council members to pinpoint areas of need in their districts compared to the administration.

That goes even more for the nonprofits themselves, said South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David.

“The organizations that provide these services are on the ground close to our community,” David said.

Finance Director Deanna Sako, whose responsibility includes making sure the budget is balanced, declined to comment Tuesday because she wasn’t present for the discussion and vote.

This year, the committee conducted 152 interviews from 160 organizations seeking a total of $4.3 million. The $1.5 million was divided among educational, culture and arts, needs of the poor, youth, seniors, disabled, crime victims, victims of health or social crises, public health and welfare and the environment.

“It’s always so painful to have to cut back on the amount that we’re able to fund organizations that do good work,” said North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff. “Although we’ve been helpful, our help can be more meaningful.”

Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas noted $2.5 million is a drop in the bucket in a $583.9 million operating budget.

“It’s minute in comparison to our overall spend,” Villegas said.

One thing the county should do, she added, is promote the program so more people know about it.

“There are a number of organizations that are very savvy to the program and a number that aren’t,” Villegas said.

Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder said he fully supports the extra funding, but he would like to see more details on the applications.

“If we can get some of the outcome,” he said. “What they’ve done with previous funds, so we can make better decisions.”

Lee Loy said her staff is working on a revised application form.

(Disclosure: Nancy Cook Lauer’s spouse is a part-time employee at Habitat for Humanity Hawaii Island, a nonprofit that received a grant this year.)

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