Assistant chief: Increased police presence on Daniel K. Inouye Highway put department $3M over budget

HILO — The county is a little less than halfway through fiscal year 2019-2020, but five months of increased police presence on Daniel K. Inouye Highway near Maunakea Access Road has put the Hawaii Police Department over budget, a high-ranking police official told the Hawaii County Police Commission on Friday during the panel’s monthly meeting in Hilo.

“Right now, we’re over budget by $3 million,” Assistant Chief Samuel Thomas told commissioners. “I will attribute a fair amount of that to the amount in manpower overtime. Hopefully, there will be a resolution into the repayment by the state for that money.”

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Since July, the county has racked up more than $5 million in law enforcement expenses related to Maunakea and the increased traffic enforcement on the highway that ended Dec. 19.

“I thought I heard in the last meeting that we’d actually been repaid from the state,” said Vice Chairman John Bertsch, who was elected chairman starting next year.

“We have the check, but we — ,” Thomas replied, hesitating.

“Can’t cash it?” Bertsch asked.

“Correct,” Thomas replied, alluding to concerns the County Council expressed about conditions the state attached to the reimbursement.

As of Dec. 11, the combined tally of 17 weeks of what police called “enhanced traffic enforcement” on the highway by officers assigned to monitor the blockade by protesters of the telescope — who call themselves kia‘i, or protectors of the mountain — stood at 8,013 citations issued and 74 persons arrested for 135 offenses.

Rod Quartararo, one of two new commissioners, asked Thomas, “With all the citations that have been written and so forth, what’s our system to collect on this?”

“That’s a very good question, and I’m glad you asked it,” Thomas answered. “The county does not get any of those funds for traffic enforcement. All that money goes to the state general fund, the citation money.”

Thomas told commissioners the police budget for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020, is just more than $70 million, adding that a budget meeting is set for Jan. 3, 2020, with the county Department of Finance.

Gov. David Ige said on Dec. 16 that the state has “spent about $15 million in trying to provide safe and secure access for Maunakea,” where protests of the Thirty Meter Telescope closed the Maunakea Access Road in July.

Ige said the state would reimburse the county for its expenses related to those demonstrations. In November, state and county officials, including Ige, Mayor Harry Kim and state Attorney General Clare Connors signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to such a deal.

The County Council was not part of that agreement, and on Dec. 18, it unanimously rejected a $10 million reimbursement deal with the state that would cover the costs of police enforcement at Maunakea Access Road. The sticking point was a condition the county enter into a five-year agreement with the state that would determine the use of the money.

Deputy Finance Director Steven Hunt told council members the reimbursement isn’t like a single-use check, but more like a line of credit with the state that the county can use to recoup funds while more expenses related to the TMT protest accrue.

Some council members were concerned the ambiguous terms of the five-year deal could be used to force the county to provide security for TMT-related construction convoys or other projects.

“I understand the council’s concerns,” Mayor Harry Kim said Tuesday. “When the county receives any money — I don’t care if it’s a $50 check — it has to go through the process of accepting the money. And this is what happened at County Council. The Police Department was being reimbursed by the state for services rendered, for overtime.

“The Corporation Counsel is working with the state attorney general’s office to change the wording so that it addresses the County Council’s concerns, so we can get reimbursement for services rendered as soon as possible, to take care of this. And obviously, that’s a major concern of mine. … We’re addressing it and, hopefully, we can resolve it.”

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Tribune-Herald reporter Michael Brestovansky contributed to this story.

Email John Burnett and Michael Brestovansky at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com and mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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