Council free to donate to non-COVID causes

  • Aaron Chung

  • Mayor Harry Kim

Mayor Harry Kim said Tuesday he’s rescinding an earlier recommendation that County Council members use their contingency funds only to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

The decision comes after five of the nine council members complained last week that council resolutions to use contingency relief funds were being kicked back by the mayor.

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Contingency funds are little pots of money — this year, $100,000 per council member — for each council member to donate at their discretion, with council approval, to nonprofits and county departments.

The mayor said he will inform the council that he’s withdrawing his recommendation. He’d instituted it early on because he was worried about there being enough money in the budget to pay for COVID-19 response and the rest of the budget.

But the commitment by the governor and state Legislature of $80 million to the county from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund and new guidance issued by the federal government that funding can be used to “meet payroll expenses for public safety, public health, health care, human services and similar employees whose services are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency,” have eased his concerns. The county hasn’t gotten the money yet, but it does have the commitment, he said.

Kim said his recommendation to hold back on grants not related to COVID-19 response was just that, a recommendation.

“It was a recommendation because it is their money,” Kim said. “I’m very pleased that they tried to abide by it because we were trying to maximize any money not encumbered to COVID.”

But council members disagreed.

“Some of our contingency relief requests have been bounced by the mayors office. The justification for the rejection has been that we are in a state of austerity and that things have to be related to COVID,” Council Chairman Aaron Chung said last week. “I’m just kind of wondering these are discretionary funds on the part of the council and the road to recovery doesn’t only mean we have to respond to COVID right now. There’s some degree of normalcy that has to occur when things get better, right? And that’s all part of the grand plan.”

Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter withdrew a resolution seeking council approval for a $3,000 grant to the Hawaii Island Portuguese Chamber of Commerce Cultural and Educational Center for its Malasada Shuffle 5k and Family Fun Fiesta Radiothon next month.

“I know dealing with COVID-19 and the immediate needs are important, but just as important is the health and well-being of our community,” Poindexter said. “So when I was told that I couldn’t give to the Portuguese chamber, that bothered me.”

Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder said he’s worried that money he wants to get to good causes could end back up in the general fund because the administration isn’t processing them.

“I would prefer to give it directly to those who need the funding versus give it to a department that may or may not spend it with the current situation,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said. “And with what remaining CRFs I have knowing that I can’t process the CRF before the end of the fiscal year, that money is going to get rolled back into the general fund. And I would rather see it go to a nonprofit or an agency that needs it.”

Kohala Councilman Tim Richards urged the administration to process contingency relief resolutions as quickly as possible, as the county is nearing June 30, the end of its fiscal year. If the money can’t go to typical causes such as community programs and festivals, the money can be routed to COVID-19 response projects.

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“My concern is and I know I’m not speaking just for myself; I’m sure other council members have funding that’s a little bit in limbo right now,” Richards said. “What I don’t want to do is, ‘Oh, we have a procedural error, so I’m sorry these kids don’t get to eat.’”

The council in April fast-tracked contingency relief money to feeding programs, with $12,000 to support free meals for community members in North, Central and South Kona at Laiopua 2020’s new commercial kitchen and $27,900 to The Food Basket, Hawaii Island’s food bank.

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