$80M in CARES funds could come to Hawaii County

  • House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke. (from Olelo TV video)

Hawaii County would receive $80 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding under a bill moving through the state Legislature.

The money is part of $1.25 billion the state is getting from the Coronavirus Relief Fund of the CARES Act. With the City and County of Honolulu granted $387.2 million by the feds, the state is trying to provide equitable funding by disbursing amounts to the other counties based on population.

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Oahu’s 2019 estimated population of 974,563 makes its share $397.10 for every man, woman and child on the island. Hawaii County with an estimated population of 201,513, would get $80 million. Maui, with an estimated 167,417 people, would get $66.6 million, and Kauai, with 72,293 people, would get $28.7 million.

The counties’ share was recommended by Gov. David Ige and incorporated into the House version of SB 75. The House Finance Committee had planned to vote on the bill today. But House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke, an Oahu Democrat, said late Tuesday, after a three-plus-hour hearing, that the committee needs more time to digest all the information presented. She anticipated the vote will happen Thursday instead.

“To be fair, we have concluded that of the balance of the moneys provided to the state, a portion of funds go to the three counties,” Ige’s Chief of Staff Linda Takayama told the Finance Committee on Tuesday.

Takayama said the office used the “same criteria used for Honolulu County.”

The state would use the remaining $637.7 million for a number of purposes delineated by state agencies.

The Senate has not weighed in on the changes to the bill. Senate Ways and Means Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz could not be reached for comment by press time Tuesday.

There are strings attached. Under the terms of Senate Bill 75, the county must coordinate with the state Department of Health and appropriate medical and nursing professionals when implementing contact tracing and testing programs, the mayor must consult with the County Council before expending any of the money and monthly reports must be submitted to the governor and the Legislature that details all allocations and expenditures.

The money can be used only for necessary expenditures incurred because of the coronavirus public health emergency that were not accounted for in the most recently approved budget as of March 27 and were incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30, according to Treasury Department guidance.

It can’t be used to prop up slumping budgets.

That could prove a challenge for counties reeling from the economic impacts of tourism loss and shuttered businesses, but Mayor Harry Kim and county Finance Director Deanna Sako are looking for the best uses of the windfall and hoping that the rules become more flexible as time goes on.

“They keep revising each week, so we’re monitoring it,” Sako said.

She said the money can’t be used to feed people, one of the most pressing needs facing the county currently. It can be used for disinfection and personal protection equipment as well as contact tracing and testing programs and COVID-related expenses of first responders, among other uses.

Dr. Bruce Anderson, director of the state Department of Health, said it’s essential that counties coordinate with his office on any contact tracing and testing they plan to do.

He said the counties might, however, want to help pick up the costs for their counties.

“We’ll work with the counties to see if we can shift parts to their budgets” Anderson said. “Try to shift costs to the county — they probably have more than they know what to do with.”

Plus, there’s more money out there, said Luke. She said she’d be talking with the county mayors and councils to help them understand which federal funds can be used for what.

“Many times, they may not be aware of all the different pots,” Luke said.

A bill before the County Council today will appropriate the latest CARES money so it can be used.

Kim said he appreciates the funding, which represents 13.7% of his proposed $585 million budget. Figuring out how to put it to best use is a work in progress, he said. The money must be spent, not just encumbered, by Dec. 30.

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“Yes, it is a lot of money,” Kim said. “It’s new money and we have to make sure it stays here and circulates here.”

Kim said he told Sako, “You keep that money here to help the people of Hawaii Island.”

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