Ballot proposal would pay nonprofit boards with PONC money

HILO — Officers and board members of nonprofit organizations receiving stewardship grants from the county’s public land fund could be paid for their work with taxpayer money, under a change to a proposed charter amendment unanimously approved by the County Council.

Currently, officers and board members of a nonprofit grant recipient are prohibited from receiving pay from the county Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission (commonly called “PONC”) maintenance fund.

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Resolution 216, sponsored by South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David and North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff, would change that. It amends a charter amendment the Charter Commission has approved for the 2020 ballot.

The board members would not be paid for “performing their duties or functions as an officer, board member or employee,” under the council’s proposed change. However, they could be paid for specific duties such as “labor, educational workshops and maintenance work,” if those duties have been specifically identified and officially approved in the detailed business plan submitted as part of the stewardship proposal.

“Especially in my district, the nonprofits that are working hard to maintain these open spaces, they’re doing it on their own time because they really believe in what they’re doing and protecting these open spaces,” David said. “We wanted to respect the fact that if they’re doing valid and legitimate work, which most of them do, then I believe they should be compensated.”

Eoff agreed. She said she’s been watching the work of the Charter Commission, but hasn’t wanted to interfere.

“You can only depend on volunteers so much,” Eoff said. “If you want to get something done, you have to have a project coordinator that’s in charge and is paid.”

Some concerns remain, however, about paying outside contractors work that has “customarily and historically” been provided by civil servants, the basis of the successful 1997 Konno lawsuit the United Public Workers Union filed against the county in a case that went to the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Concerns about implementing a pay scale and how it would compare to the pay scale of full-time Parks and Recreation workers also must be considered, said Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung.

The council’s unanimous vote Wednesday sends the measure back to the Charter Commission for consideration at its next meeting. The commission can incorporate it into its proposed charter language or reject it, in which case the council could vote to put it on the ballot side-by-side with the commission’s version.

The PONC acquisition fund comes from a sweep of 2% annually from county property tax revenues. Another 0.25% is taken for the PONC maintenance fund. As of June 30, there was $22.6 million in the acquisition fund and $2.9 million in the maintenance fund, according to PONC commission records.

Debbie Hecht, Save Our Lands citizen initiative coordinator who collected signatures to get a dedicated land fund on the 2005 and 2012 ballots, was one of a handful of testifiers in favor of the change.

“(It) enables the nonprofits to be able to pay people to work on the land, even if they volunteer as a board,” Hecht said.

Toni Withington, who has long been active in efforts to protect and promote coastal access in North Kohala, said she was speaking on behalf of five community organizations.

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“The people who are most passionate about preserving land, those are the people who are really on the board,” said Withington. “If those jobs are designed and taken by board members, those board members should be paid. … They pour their hearts into it and then they burn out. We don’t want to burn out.”

The Charter Commission, which meets every 10 years, has proposed 21 amendments that will appear on the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot.

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