PONC money for nonprofit boards heads to 2020 ballot

  • PONC Commissioner Rick Warshauer testifies before the Charter Commission last December about the public land buying program in Hilo. (File photo)

HILO — A charter proposal allowing the county to pay nonprofit board members to help maintain open space cleared its final hurdle Thursday and is headed to the 2020 ballot.

The Charter Commission, on a 9-0 vote with two members absent, approved changes unanimously proposed by the County Council that add the language to a ballot proposal previously approved by the commission.

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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.

Proponents said volunteer burnout and inconsistent work makes it difficult for public lands to be properly maintained. Having the contracts and money under Finance Department oversight will ensure the money’s properly spent, said Charter Commissioner Sarah Rice.

“This seems to be something that the people of this island want and they want very much,” Rice said. “This would allow for continuing, ongoing maintenance rather than the sporadic maintenance that happens now.”

The board members would not be paid for “performing their duties or functions as an officer, board member or employee,” under the council’s 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.

“Unfortunately, most of the funds in this program have been going to expensive studies,” said PONC Commissioner Rick Warshauer, one of nine people who testified in support of the change.

Testifier Susan Duerson said the County Council endorsement should carry some weight with the commission. Two council members also spoke in favor of the measure.

“Other eyes have looked at it and have seen that it is a very important step,” Duerson said.

Debbie Hecht, Save Our Lands citizen initiative coordinator who collected signatures to get a dedicated land fund on the 2005 and 2012 ballots, said nonprofits have received only 9% of the maintenance money collected since 2013 from property taxes.

“What we have learned from feedback from the nonprofits, is that the volunteer workforce is inconsistent and shows up to help when it is convenient for them,” Hecht said. “The ability to pay dedicated staff would help create jobs in rural, economically depressed areas of the island and minimize volunteer burnout.”

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 July 30, there was $22.6 million in the acquisition fund and $2.9 million in the maintenance fund, according to PONC records.

The amended charter amendment now joins 20 others for the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot.

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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.

The Charter Commission went into a 30-minute executive session, apparently to discuss those concerns, and then emerged and voted without further public comment.

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