County’s mauna costs near $5M

HILO — Hawaii County has spent nearly $5 million on expenses relating to the standoff at Maunakea Access Road, but reimbursement should be coming soon.

More than 100 days since the county began incurring costs relating to the standoff between the state and opponents of the yet-to-be-constructed Thirty Meter Telescope, the state Department of the Attorney General has signed an agreement that will reimburse the county for the majority of those costs.

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At a Tuesday meeting of the County Council Committee on Finance, Corporation Counsel Joseph Kamelamela said the state’s reimbursement money should be transferred to the county in the next two weeks.

However, County Finance Director Deanna Sako told council members that the state has only agreed to reimburse the county for fire department and police expenditures. That said, police expenses account for the vast majority of the total expenditures, which have now reached $4.9 million as of Nov. 1.

A breakdown of the costs reveals that police overtime and fringe benefits alone total more than $4.5 million, with fire department costs the second-largest expense at $150,000. The remaining costs, approximately $325,000, will have to be paid by the county.

“That’s nice of the state,” said Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder dryly. “Thanks for that, guys.”

Nearly half of those remaining costs were accrued by the mayor’s office, which has spent about $141,000 since the start of the standoff. Most of that went to the installation of temporary traffic lights at Maunakea Access Road, Sako said.

While standoff-related expenses have grown since the start of the standoff in July, that growth has slowed significantly since the last report.

Total expenses have increased by about half a million dollars since Oct. 1, when Sako reported that the county had accrued $4.4 million in expenses. That Oct. 1 sum was nearly $1 million more than a report from the beginning of September, which cited a total of $3.6 million.

Hawaii County Police Chief Paul Ferreira said the Police Department has greatly reduced the number of officers stationed on Maunakea. While police presence at the access road was high in the first months of the standoff, when thousands of protesters visited the site to halt construction of TMT on a mountain considered by some to be sacred, the unchanging nature of the stalemate has allowed the department to scale back their presence considerably, Ferreira said.

Tuesday’s meeting also briefly touched on a point of confusion raised by the last standoff expense report.

At the Oct. 1 meeting, Sako and Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder were informed of a memorandum of understanding signed by the Hawaii and Maui county police chiefs wherein the county agreed to reimburse Maui County for expenses incurred by the Maui Police Department in mid-July when Maui officers were brought to the Big Island to secure the access road.

The confusion arose when it was revealed that a state statute requires such intercounty agreements to be signed by both counties’ mayors, leading to questions as to whether the agreement was legitimate.

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However, Kamelamela said at Tuesday’s meeting that he does not believe the agreement violated any statute or charter.

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

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