Update on TMT standoff-related expenses raises reimbursement questions

  • Sue Lee Loy
  • A view from Pu’u Huluhulu on July 19 at the intersection of Daniel K. Inouye Highway and Maunakea Access Road. (Hawaii Tribune-Herald/file photo)

HILO — The ongoing standoff at Maunakea Access Road has now cost Hawaii County more than $4 million, but the county might be on the hook for more.

At a Tuesday meeting of the County Council’s Finance Committee, Finance Director Deanna Sako presented her latest report on the costs incurred by various county agencies relating to the continuing Maunakea Access Road standoff related to the Thirty Meter Telescope project. Since the beginning of July, Sako said, the county has spent more than $4.4 million on Maunakea-related expenses.

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That sum has increased by nearly $1 million since Sako’s last report at the beginning of September, which cited a total of $3.6 million spent.

Sako’s report Tuesday raised more questions than it answered, however. Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder said a memorandum of understanding was filed in July wherein the county evidently agreed to reimburse Maui County for expenses incurred by the Maui Police Department during the brief period in mid-July when Maui officers were brought to the Big Island to secure the access road.

Sako and Kanealii-Kleinfelder said they were unaware of that agreement before Tuesday.

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung said he questioned the validity of the memorandum. It invokes a state statute that permits such intercounty agreements only if the mayors are signatory to them. The memorandum was not signed by the Hawaii and Maui county mayors, however, but by their police chiefs.

Neither Sako, the council members nor Hawaii County Corporation Counsel Joseph Kamelamela were aware of any version of the agreement that was signed by either mayor.

“I’m not saying we should renege on any agreement we’ve made,” Chung said, adding he is not confident about the propriety of the agreement presented to the committee.

Furthermore, a memorandum of understanding between the county and the state attorney general is still pending, Sako said. That agreement will allow the county to be reimbursed for Maunakea standoff-related expenses, but is still being reviewed by the Office of the Attorney General. Sako said she expects that agreement to be finalized by the end of the week.

However, Sako said she does not think the state will reimburse the county for any expenses not incurred by the county police and fire departments. Council members appeared to be caught off guard by that admission and asked Sako to try to get the full sum reimbursed.

“Can we try?” asked Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy before becoming more pointed: “I’m doing a Jedi mind trick, saying: ‘We can try.’”

“We can always try,” Sako conceded.

Sako said the Hawaii Police Department accounts for the vast majority of the total expenses, making up nearly $4.2 million through salaries and overtime alone. Kanealii-Kleinfelder said a relatively short expanse of Daniel K. Inouye Highway near the access road is being regularly patrolled by “more police officers than are in my entire district.”

Kanealii-Kleinfelder said he was surprised that there was evidently no system in place that would have allowed the county to review the potential expenses of the situation before agreeing to pay for it.

“We never had the chance to say that we don’t intend to go this far,” he said.

Sako said each department is responsible for managing its expenses based on funds budgeted beforehand. The police chief, she said, has been working with the corporation counsel and is comfortable with the assumption that the state will reimburse the county soon.

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For now, Sako said, there is enough in the budget to bear the expense.

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

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