HILO — Legislation tackling health-care costs, homelessness and cesspools are among six priorities identified by Mayor Harry Kim as the four county mayors head to Honolulu Wednesday to address legislative money committees.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee and House Finance Committee have scheduled a joint informational session at the state Capitol for 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, the opening day of the regular legislative session.
A top priority for Kim is helping to make health care more affordable by exempting private health-care providers from the general excise tax. Kim said a group of physicians visited him Monday and described their situation as dire. In fact, Kim said, he’d declared a health-care crisis in 2007 during an earlier term as mayor and held a health-care summit to try to work out solutions.
“I had 12 individuals coming in to say, ‘Harry, we are in a crisis.’ On top of that, they said it’s getting worse,” Kim said. “I’m embarrassed that I put it on a back burner. … Without a good health-care system, you don’t have community growth.”
Managing Director Roy Takemoto unveiled Kim’s priorities Tuesday to the County Council Committee on Governmental Relations and Economic Development as part of what is slated to become monthly briefings to the council. Takemoto said the administration presented the priorities Monday to House Speaker Scott Saiki after communicating them to the committee chairmen.
Takemoto said the exemption could make a big difference to physicians, while not costing the state all that much in taxes.
“It’s very, very critical,” Takemoto said. “For a practice that’s just marginal, this makes a big difference. Already some medical expenses from the hospitals are exempt but this is extending the exemption to private medical practice.”
Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter hopes the exemption can go farther and also exempt equipment and supplies purchased by nonprofit federally qualified health centers.
“We need to look into how we can minimize or exempt the supplies and equipment that they purchase because what they’re purchasing to do their services, those people selling it to them are not exempt from the GET, so they have a rising cost so the health centers are having to absorb the rising cost of the GET expense,” Poindexter said. “Yes, we’ll be able to help the private sector, but also the most important places who provide services for uninsured, underinsured, Medicare, Medicaid population that’s the target population is going to be hit by this.”
Two of the mayor’s priorities track with the council priorities outlined in the legislative package being presented by the Hawaii State Association of Counties:
• Expand the use of the transient accommodations tax collected on hotels and short-term rentals to maintain county beaches and parks.
• Extend a homeowner’s tax credit to replace cesspools with a sewer system to June 30, 2021. The proposed bill also eliminates the requirement that eligible cesspools be within 500 feet of a shoreline, stream or wetland or are shown to impact drinking water supplies.
Kim said his legislative request includes “all that and more” about cesspools. Almost 50,000 of the 88,000 cesspools in the state are on the Big Island, according to the state Department of Health. A law passed in the 2017 legislative session requires the replacement of all cesspools by 2050.
While the threats to the aquifers, marine environment and public health from cesspools are widely recognized, Kim thinks the state should take more of an area-by-area analysis instead of a blanket law. Properties not near any underground water sources or shorelines shouldn’t have to face the same rigorous rules, he said.
“It will be very, very difficult to meet the cesspool requirement,” Kim said. “One stroke of the pen increases the cost of a house by $10,000 to $20,000.”
Other priorities on Kim’s list:
• GET flexibility. A bill advocated by Hawaii County last year didn’t make it through last year’s legislative session and is still available for consideration. It would allow counties under 500,000 in population to use the GET proceeds for public safety and infrastructure, in addition to its currently allowed uses of transportation, mass transit and bikeways and trails. Lawmakers who objected to the bill said Hawaii County needs to address its pressing road and mass transit issues before asking for more flexible spending.
• Continuing “ohana zone” funding for homeless projects. Village 9 in Kailua-Kona, the old Hilo hospital in Hilo and 20 tiny housing projects in Pahoa are among the newest projects helping move homeless people off the street, but more state funding is needed, county officials say.
• Banyan Drive redevelopment. The county continues to lobby for the state to kick in more money for upgrades and maintenance along Banyan Drive, Hilo’s hotel hub. The property is all state-owned, but it’s been allowed to deteriorate over the years through inattention, Kim said.
Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy was among her colleagues praising the administration for keeping the council in the loop, in a new monthly meeting format that’s the brainchild of Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder. Lee Loy urged the county to make their legislative priorities known early and often to the island’s legislative delegation.
“It’s the old how do you eat an elephant conversation, right? One bite at a time, but we want to make sure we’re not biting at legislative priorities in August. Or maybe we should to get ready for that next legislative session,” Lee Loy said. “It’s more of an islandwide approach on what we as a council and an entire county want to see happen.”