KAILUA-KONA — A contemporary New York City poet a couple decades back in a now-famous lyric exclaimed that more money means more problems.
When it comes to Hawaii County’s budget, it’s the inverse. More problems mean more money — roughly $65.8 million more over this fiscal year to be exact, with a total budget of roughly $583.9 million.
Community Forums on Thursday evening hosted a panel of county officials, headed by Mayor Harry Kim, to explain and justify their asks in the wake of a financial calendar year marred by volcanic tragedy, mass transit turmoil and homeless disruption across the island.
Forum moderator Sherry Bracken said a question submitted by several community members centered around whether the county has considered rethinking its budget process to stem the ever-rising figures, which crack unprecedented heights with each passing year.
“Every single dollar that we spend of your money is justified because it goes through a process (of several reviews and hearings),” Kim said.
Steven Hunt, deputy director of the Department of Finance, got more into the nuts and bolts surrounding the possibility of different budgetary approaches.
“Certain things cannot be cut because they are required by charter,” he said. “You can look at synergies where maybe there’s overlap in services, and I think to some degree we do that already.”
“A lot of this is not by our decision,” continued Hunt, as he broke down the numbers for roughly two dozen community members in attendance.
Of the $65.8 million budgetary increase, Hunt described $30.8 million as “uncontrollable expenses.” Between unfunded pensions and unfunded post-employment health benefits for public workers, Hawaii County is currently in a hole a little more than $1 billion deep.
The mayor’s final proposed budget, submitted earlier this month, includes $12.9 million for retirement contributions and $5 million for post-employment benefits — both state-mandated items.
Hunt said the budget after next will see retirement contributions jump another $10 million, which he projected will be the last sizable leap before the county fully funds its retirement obligations in 2043. The county projects it “will be coming off” post-employment benefits six years earlier in 2037.
Other mandated items include $9.2 million for salaries and wages, as well as $6.5 million for compensation adjustments based on predictive outcomes of coming collective bargaining agreements between the county and unions representing public employees.
When asked if there was a way to curb benefits for county employees, which can include mandatory pay raises and the like, Kim said it wouldn’t be impossible. However, some departments struggle to recruit the requisite talent now, he continued. If Hawaii County pursues that route, it risks understaffing and/or missing out on quality employees who take superior jobs on the mainland or other islands.
Panelists were also questioned as to how some of the budget burden might be transferred onto the island’s constant flow of tourists — charging visitors more, for instance, to use community pools or attend the zoo. Bracken also mentioned raising the price of subsidized golf at the Hilo Municipal Golf Course for residents.
“All of those things are right now on the table and we are discussing increases (in charges),” said Roxcie Waltjen, director of the Department of Parks and Recreation. “In fact, each of those divisions have submitted price increases to me.”
Taxes and expenditures
Hunt said $330.7 million of the budget is funded by property taxes, which weren’t raised during the year but are expected to be bolstered due to a 3.2% average increase in property values islandwide.
“There is a misconception that our property taxes are very high,” said Kim, dismissing the notion as factually incorrect. “That’s not a reason to raise it.”
Fuel and general excise tax increases will hit Hawaii Island pockets in the coming year, with $32 million in projected revenue generation from the 0.5% GET bump that will take effect Jan. 1. That funding is mandated for use in projects related to mass transit, transportation and road maintenance.
David Yamamoto, director of the Department of Public Works, said he’s requested a budget of $57.8 million. When asked to justify his the request, Yamamoto explained extra GET funds are earmarked for DPW projects like the Oneo Lane extension in Kailua Village to connect Kuakini Highway with Alii Drive. The department is currently in the process of purchasing the necessary land from Kamehameha Schools.
The building permit process, a thorn in the side of the island’s business community, will also be addressed in several ways, including software upgrades and moving from a three-permit system for building, electrical and plumbing to a one-permit application.
“We’re also introducing an electronic plan review, which … hopefully will remove some time off reviewing permit applications,” Yamamoto said.
As for how funding increases can help the county’s beleaguered public transportation system, Mass Transit Administrator Brenda Carreira was blunt.
“I need bodies and buses,” she said.
The department auctioned off 34 vehicles Thursday, she continued, with 19 buses waiting on parts. Mass Transit currently has 33 routes with only 11 working buses to service them.
Beyond mandated obligations and transportation woes, a significant chunk of the budget will go to the acquisition of 93 new employees. Hunt said 35 of those are fund-specific and have funding sources, such as 10 new employees at the Department of Environmental Management to oversee the new R1 treatment system at the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant. They will be compensated via revenue generated through sewer fee increases.
The other 58 proposed positions include 44 new police officers, six of which would come to West Hawaii, and three vehicle registration and licensing clerks, two of whom would land on the island’s leeward side.
Parks also requested six new employees. Much like the police force, Parks workers spend an incommensurate amount of their time and effort dealing with problems caused or exacerbated by the county’s homeless population.
Kim said when surveyed, police on patrol report spending 60-70% of their time responding to homeless concerns, while Parks employees spend 70-80% of their time cleaning up after the transient populations, including biohazards like used hypodermic needles.