Bus depot land buy paused

HILO — The County Council put the brakes Wednesday on a fast-tracked land buy for a bus depot, for at least two more weeks while more information is gathered.

The $900,000 purchase, for 1.45 acres at the intersection of Pahoa Bypass Road and Kapoho Road, known as Site 6, came under increased scrutiny two weeks ago after county administration said they’d already entered a purchase contract with the owner of one of seven sites being evaluated for the depot. The project is in the mass transit master plan to be constructed in 2022.

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Bill 131 simply appropriates $1.45 million to the Mass Transit Agency for a hub-and-spoke bus depot; it doesn’t say where the depot would be built. But several council members, irked that the bill was never heard in a committee, weren’t satisfied that the administration wouldn’t proceed with the purchase of the site if they approved the money.

The council voted 7-1 to postpone the matter until Feb. 5, with Kohala Councilman Tim Richards voting no and Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung absent.

No council action is required to purchase land for the project, and members have no official say in site selection. But they can refuse to let go of the money.

Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas said she previously asked if the bill was site-specific and was told it was. But Finance Director Deanna Sako said there’s no property mentioned in the bill, so it isn’t.

Villegas wasn’t convinced, noting the property owner was at the meeting, and the discussion centered around the property, not the appropriation.

“What it says on paper is not what it seems is actually occurring,” Villegas said. “It just seems that the wheel came before the horse.”

Consultants had recommended leasing Site 6 as an interim solution until the county could develop a more favorable property, such as Site 3, near the new police and fire stations. Two of the parcels are government-owned and wouldn’t require purchasing.

But Site 6 owner Gilbert Aguinaldo was interested only in selling, not leasing the property, Sako said.

“We acted in good faith. We’d been asked to work on getting that site,” Sako said. “Whatever site we pick, not everyone is going to be happy — so we’re trying to make the best decision for everyone.”

But Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder wanted to see price comparisons on purchasing and developing all seven of the sites. He wasn’t satisfied with what Managing Director Roy Takemoto called a “quick and dirty” comparison that Takemoto said showed Site 6 the least expensive.

“I would like to see some really good numbers. … When we’re considering a site, all sites should be compared equally,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said. “I can tell there wasn’t a lot of background information on the cost, of what the cost would be, (but) just pushing for one site in particular.”

The matter was further complicated by Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz’s disclosure at the first reading of the bill of a distant family relationship with Aguinaldo, whom she refers to as “my uncle.”

The relationship is too distant to violate any county rules, and Kierkiewicz wasn’t prevented from participating in the discussion and vote.

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Kierkiewicz asked for the postponement so she and Kanealii-Kleinfelder could meet with the administration and the community to ensure consensus.

“We get frustrated when government moves slow and then we get frustrated when the government moves more efficiently,” she said.

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