Council urges hiring freeze: Resolution asks Kim to give next administration a chance to evaluate new hires

  • Former Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi

  • Mayor Harry Kim

  • Aaron Chung

With the current mayor and a former mayor providing different perspectives, the County Council on Wednesday unanimously passed a resolution urging Mayor Harry Kim’s administration to immediately institute a hiring freeze for the remainder of his term.

Resolution 709 is nonbinding; the council can’t control hiring practices, although it can defund positions through its budget authority. But Council Chairman Aaron Chung, who sponsored the resolution, said the intent is to send a message.

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“It could be viewed as a policy statement. Not a policy directive but a policy statement,” Chung said.

Resolution 709 urges the administration to “immediately institute a temporary freeze on all new hires, including recruitments of currently vacant positions, with the exception of officer positions in the public safety sector and those positions directly involved in the operations of critical infrastructure work with the Department of Water Supply and the Wastewater and Solid Waste Divisions of the Department of Environmental Management.”

Chung said a pause in hiring would give the new administration a chance to come in and “look at the situation with fresh eyes.” Kim, who lost his reelection bid, finishes his term at noon Dec. 7. He will be replaced by either Mitch Roth or Ikaika Marzo, depending on who wins the Nov. 3 runoff election.

Council members agreed a hiring freeze is a good idea. With COVID-19 cases increasing on the island and in the state, forcing delays in reopening the state to tourists, the future economic forecast remains grim.

“We’ve definitely got challenging times ahead. … I can’t even imagine what the challenges are ahead of us,” said Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz. “We know folks, our constituents, are forced to make do with less. … We’re going to be strapped to make these very difficult decisions.”

Kohala Councilman Tim Richards agreed.

“It’s not about the short game; its about the long game. I think we need to be very fiscally cautious going into this,” Richards said. “This is a statement of our direction, not a directive.”

Kim, in written testimony to the council, said the administration already has policies and procedures in place to control spending. Only funded positions can be filled and only after the department provides justification that’s approved by the managing director, he said. There’s an expenditure review committee to review all equipment and other purchases.

“As you will recall, many positions were unfunded and others had their funding reduced as part of the budget process, so each department is paying close attention to ensure that only critical positions are filled,” Kim said in his testimony. “We continue to closely monitor our finances and the budget, especially in these difficult economic times.”

Former Mayor Billy Kenoi, who navigated the county through the Great Recession using a combination of budget cuts, land sales and employee furloughs, was the only other person submitting testimony on the measure.

He noted the state is taking steps including considering furloughs to meet its own budget shortfalls. The county, with fewer revenue options, should save “every dollar” for the coming shortfalls, he said.

“All hiring should come to a screeching halt except for Police, Fire and Civil Defense and essential hires that are justified and approved by the Hawaii County Council,” Kenoi said in written testimony. “Resolution 709-20 will go a long way toward providing the next council and the next administration every available tool in the financial and fiscal toolbox.”

Paradoxically, in the same meeting the council approved the hiring freeze resolution, it also unanimously approved without comment a resolution creating two new positions within the Department of Parks and Recreation. One full-time and one half-time position will be used to provide “natural, cultural and historical interpretive information of Waipio Valley and monitor vehicles accessing the road,” according to Resolution 698.

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The positions have been filled by temporary contract hires over the past five years, costing about $60,000 annually, so it won’t have an impact on the budget, Chung said. But Chung agreed it did appear “odd.”

“Hiring and creating the positions are two different things,” Chung said, adding that the council did scrutinize the resolution Aug. 4 at the committee level. “I think now the questions will get a little more pointed.”

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