Wednesday, Dec. 06, 2023 |
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HILO — The first round of County Council budget amendments brought treats for West Hawaii, more money for council members to spread around their districts, a whistle-blower program and a discussion about whether the county should spend every cent it collects.
The council Wednesday passed Mayor Harry Kim’s $583.9 million spending plan on first reading after dipping into fund balance reserves to add $545,000 more in spending to the mix. The budget is a 12.7% increase over last year and goes into effect July 1.
The budget will next be heard June 5, when a new round of amendments will be considered before final passage.
Kohala Councilman Tim Richards was the sole dissenter, after voting yes on the amendments. He said he’s voting no “on principle,” because he doesn’t like the current piecemeal process of putting together a budget, and he doesn’t like how spending was ramped up to match new revenues.
“Our system almost encourages spending at the back end; it doesn’t encourage savings,” Richards said. “I’m seeking a solution. I’m not obstructing here.”
Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy agreed with that sentiment.
“Right in the last six weeks, we’re spending like crazy,” Lee Loy said. “Why don’t we try to save some of it?”
Council members questioned how the county can afford 93 new employees, when salaries, wages and benefits are taking an increasingly larger share of the budget. Several asked what happens to the budget to employees who are hired with grants and temporary tax hikes that eventually run out.
“We’re going to have these employees on our books,” said Lee Loy. “Some of those buckets of money may not be available 10 years down the road.”
Finance Director Deanna Sako said usually the employees are “absorbed” into government positions.
“If we lost the grant, we would immediately stop hiring and work toward attrition,” Sako said.
A stipend for $25 greens fees at West Hawaii golf courses starting Jan. 1 will help put golfers on the leeward side more on par with their East Hawaii counterparts, said Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, who successfully took $250,000 from the fund balance to pay for the voucher program.
The vouchers would allow residents to play rounds of golf for $25 greens fees at whatever private golf courses respond to and win a county request for proposals. Golfers will still have to pay golf cart rentals on their own.
The golf subsidy was eliminated in 2012, but Villegas said her constituents want to see it revived. The county had originally instituted it help create par parity because Hilo Municipal golf course is the only county-owned facility on the island. The facility, which recently underwent a $17 million renovation, relies on an annual $650,000 taxpayer subsidy to keep it in the green.
“We are supporting the Hilo Municipal course,” said Walter Kimura, 87, one of four testifiers supporting the plan. “I would venture to say West Hawaii pays more than its fair share.”
Villegas said she didn’t want to turn the debate into an East versus West issue. But constituents don’t necessarily see it that way.
South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David supported the plan.
“It’s an equitable way of giving these kupuna on the west side an opportunity to play golf without waiting for a municipal golf course to be built in Kona,” David said. “I think this is a good give-back for them, and it will benefit the island as a whole.”
Council Chairman Aaron Chung, of Hilo, said he understands the fairness issue. He recounted the history of the issue, dating back to when he said the county was all set to build a West Hawaii golf course, but area residents opposed it.
“It is basically a fairness issue. There is some resentment having a public course on the east side and not the west side,” Chung said, adding that golf courses will never be able to pay their own way. “It’s an enhancement, it’s not a moneymaker. It’s a money loser.”
Lifeguards for Kua Bay, a West Hawaii priority for years, was solidified into the budget when North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff amended the spending plan to add $480,000 to appropriate money granted by the state Legislature for four lifeguards and equipment.
Two amendments by Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz also were approved.
One takes $25,000 from the fund balance to create a 24/7 whistle-blower hot-line, where county employees and the public can call to report misfeasance or malfeasance in county government.
The other takes $270,000 from the fund balance to give each council member $60,000 next year instead of the $30,000 each are currently allotted for their district contingency account. That’s money they can spend on county departments and nonprofits to address immediate issues and needs.
“It is giving it back to the taxpayers, because they’re letting us know what their needs are,” said Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter. “It’s not department driven; it’s community driven.”
Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder was dubious.
“When you see more money in your savings account, you’re going to spend it,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said. “I think the correct thing to do is to start paying down debt and make sure we’re doing the right thing for taxpayers. … Of course I’d rather have more money to spend on my district. … But are we heading on the right course?
The county fund balance is cash left over at the end of a budget year. That figure currently stands at $32.7 million, but not all end-of-year spending has been taken into account, said Sako.
Sako cautioned council members about pulling too freely from that pot of money, because it serves as a buffer in emergencies and is also carried over to help fund future budgets.
That helps the taxpayers, she said. A low fund balance could hurt the county’s bond rating, resulting in higher interest rates on future borrowing.
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