Costs keep rising; County has now spent more than $3.6 million on TMT-related expenses

  • STEPHANIE SALMONS/Tribune-Herald Finance Director Deanna Sako and Police Chief Paul Ferreira testify during Tuesday's County Council Finance Committee meeting.

HILO — The standoff at Maunakea Access Road has now cost the county more than $3.6 million.

During a Tuesday meeting of the Hawaii County Council Finance Committee, Finance Director Deanna Sako presented an updated report on the county’s expenses relating to the ongoing Thirty Meter Telescope project. Sako’s report revealed that the county has now spent $3,650,255.63 on the project since the beginning of July.

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The majority of that figure — $3.4 million — are labor costs incurred by law enforcement personnel stationed on Maunakea.

Puna council member Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder, who requested the report, noted that the total costs had only increased by about $380,000 since the previous report on Aug. 20. Police Chief Paul Ferreira confirmed that law enforcement is now incurring significantly less overtime than at the height of the protests in July, when officers islandwide transitioned to 12-hour shifts. The department is now working standard eight-hour shifts again.

However, Ferreira noted the county can expect a $350,000 to $400,000 increase to the total price tag every two weeks, unless the number of officers on the mountain is reduced.

“We’re at the bare minimum right now,” Ferreira said, explaining that there are about 20 officers on the mountain at any given time.

Although the county has a verbal agreement with the state that all TMT-related expenses will be reimbursed by the state, Sako said the county has yet to receive such repayments.

“I know they are actively reviewing our requests,” Sako said, adding that the state “always has questions” whenever reviewing reimbursement claims. She also said the county will “aggressively seek collection” if the state should delay making a payment.

Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder seemed wearied by the mounting costs.

“The sovereignty of the land is maintained by harmony,” Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said, paraphrasing the Hawaii state motto. “What’s happening on Maunakea is not harmonious with what the county needs.”

Even with the state’s promise to refund the money, Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said the money could have been spent on more deserving projects than the security of a corporation that is not even based in the state.

Public testimony at the beginning of the meeting raised similar concerns.

“If TMT needs security, they should be like other businesses and hire police officers for it,” said testifier Brenda Kanehailua. “I don’t understand why they’re up there.”

“I don’t feel the county taxpayers should continue to fund the TMT corporation,” said testifier Nelson Ho, adding that the TMT project has been plagued with gross malfeasance for years.

Many testifiers took issue with their taxes paying for increased enforcement on Daniel K. Inouye Highway that then disproportionately affected commuters and others not even affiliated with the protests against TMT.

Sako said the increased number of traffic citations near Maunakea Access Road is not intended to help the county recoup the cost of the project, as those fines are collected by the state.

Meanwhile, Hilo and Hamakua council member Valerie Poindexter expressed concern that the continued presence of officers on the mountain might detract from police service elsewhere on the island, and said her office received calls about various illegal activities unaddressed by community policing officers. Ferreira said police captains would work with Poindexter to ensure her constituency is sufficiently policed.

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Sako will present an updated report at the next meeting of the Finance Committee in Kona. She said she would also try to include a breakdown of how much reimbursement, if any, the county has received for its maintenance of the access road.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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