Hapuna lifeguards, EMS on the state chopping block

  • Hawaii County Lifeguard Ben Fisher patrols Hapuna Beach on an ATV donated by the Daniel R Sayre Memorial Foundation in 2018. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today, file)

  • An EMS practitioner uses the mask adapter kit to get a proper fit for his N95 mask. (Courtesy Photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

Some $6 million in state funding for lifeguards, emergency medical services and ambulances is on the chopping block, forcing Hawaii County to look for ways to cover expenses out of its own tight budget, which already had to be balanced by raising taxes on luxury homes.

The county plans to use some of its $80 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to make up the shortfall, but federal restrictions on how the relief money can be spent may send the budget crunchers back to county coffers if the state doesn’t offer relief.

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The funding cuts include $1.3 million for nine lifeguards at Hapuna Beach State Park, $3.9 million for supplemental pay increases for EMS services and about $800,000 for an ambulance for Paradise Park. The Kua Bay tower and lifeguard positions funded in 2019 for $480,000 were spared from the cuts.

Meanwhile, local officials hope the state Legislature has second thoughts about the cuts as it meets this week and next to plug a $413 million shortfall in its own budget and decide how to spend its own $618 million in CARES Act money.

County Finance Director Deanna Sako remains hopeful.

“It’s not final until it’s final,” she said Tuesday.

Still, she said, the Legislature’s choices, while difficult, are understandable.

“If I were them, I would be looking at absolutely everything,” she said. “Any time we have a recession, their revenue hits are immediate while ours are delayed.”

Big Island legislators are optimistic.

“Things are still a little fluid but it looks pretty good,” state Rep. Chris Todd, a Hilo Democrat and the only Big Island member of the House Finance Committee, said Tuesday afternoon. “I think a lot of things are changing by the hour. … Hopefully we’ll have good news.”

The federal CARES money can’t be used to prop up revenues lost in existing budgets that were approved prior to March 27. Hawaii County’s new budget year starts July 1.

The federal money 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, according to federal guidance memos.

The county’s EMS cuts were part of cuts statewide, a move opposed by the state Department of Health, which told the Senate Ways and Means Committee last month it had “concerns” about the budget.

Sako said the county should be able to use CARES money to pay the difference in EMS services, as they need additional personal protection equipment such as masks as workers go out educating businesses and the public about prevention practices.

Likewise, lifeguards could also be eligible under the federal definition, Sako said.

“The ocean safety officers are patrolling the beaches, keeping people informed, enforcing social distancing and all of that,” she said.

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources in March approved nonresident parking and entrance fee hikes at state parks such as Hapuna to pay for, among other things, salaries, wages and lifeguard services. The Department of Land and Natural Resources is taking public comment on the new rules through June 30.

Instead of a public hearing, the department will read the public comments at a 10 a.m. July 3 videoconference public hearing. Details about the public hearing and how to submit testimony can be found here: https://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dsp/announcements/notice-of-public-hearing-state-park-camping-lodging-and-pavilion-rental-fees-parking-and-entrance-fees-for-designated-state-park-areas.

But with tourism curtailed as the coronavirus pandemic rages on the mainland and in some other countries, the special funds revenues from parks aren’t materializing and the state would have to pay for services from its general fund, said state Sen. Dru Kanuha, D-Kona, Ka‘u, who sits on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

“The issue was that these positions were paid through special funds from user fees,” Kanuha said. “But since no money is going into those special funds, they weren’t going to continue paying them through those funds.”

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Todd said the legislative leadership is giving Gov. David Ige’s administration a lot of flexibility in budgeting, and the state may take advantage of low-interest loans to pay for some of its projects.

“It will be up to the governor,” Todd said. “We’re all trying our best.”

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