Some county departments plan to dramatically increase their travel budgets for the new fiscal year that starts July 1, after an austere period that saw Zoom teleconferences replace the traditional off-island conventions previously attended by government officials and staff.
A West Hawaii Today analysis of 88 line items detailing “Travel/Conference” in the 322-page preliminary spending plan released last Monday by Mayor Mitch Roth showed general fund travel budgets more than doubled to $1.8 million from $856,879 in the primarily pre-pandemic 2019-2020 fiscal year.
But officials say most of the increases come from new federal grant funding, so property owners won’t be footing the bill with their property taxes.
Finance Director Deanna Sako said a full $1.4 million of the $1.8 million budgeted will be paid by federal grants. That means $445,802 will be paid by county taxpayers in the new budget, compared to $421,507 in 2019-2020.
The County Council has received the preliminary budget and will next month conduct department-by-department informational sessions for administrators to describe their operations and budgets. Roth will issue his final proposed budget May 5, and then the council can amend it and set property tax rates for the coming year.
“Given the effects that COVID-19 has had on our local and global economy, the biggest challenge we face will be maintaining services across-the-board,” said council Finance Committee Chairman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder.
The council’s travel budget increased from $61,842 to $90,000, but Kanealii-Kleinfelder said he’s unsure why, since “we can’t travel anyway.”
Kohala Councilman Tim Richards said he doesn’t see travel resuming right away, but that could change as the year progresses. Council members are involved in both the Hawaii State Association of Counties and the National Association of Counties, groups they see as important in lobbying federal government and exchanging ideas with their peers from other regions.
Richards is feeling good about Hawaii County’s prospects.
The budget, Roth’s first since taking office, is a $590.8 million spending plan for operations, just $4.8 million more than last year, a scant 0.8% increase. Increased funding comes from a 3% increase in property tax revenues due to increased values, bringing in an additional $9.9 million.
“I’m optimistic about this mayor; I’m optimistic about the future,” Richards said. “We’re not recovered — we all know that — but I really like the fact this mayor is being conservative and not trying to catch up all at once.”
Training is often a big part of some departments’ travel budgets.
“Many of our departments, especially Police, were very successful in getting additional grants for training,” Sako said.
Police Chief Paul Ferreira, whose travel budget grew from $319,297 to $871,670, said grants comprise the bulk of the spending, which is almost entirely for training. Travel budgets for administrators and the Police Commission to attend conferences have been zeroed out, he said.
“When we’re asked to cut the budget, that’s the first thing we cut,” Ferreira said. “We’re doing no traveling this year and very restricted traveling next year.”
Some training is mandated for certification of officers, he said. Much of the training is being done through online teleconferencing, but when that’s not possible, counties are pooling their resources to bring mainland trainers to the state. When that happens, officers on various islands have to travel to whichever island is hosting the trainer.
“We will still be traveling interisland more, but as far as the mainland conferences, we’re not,” he said.
Some departments, such as the Department of Research & Development and the Department of Information Technology, zeroed out their travel budgets entirely. Others, such as the Mayor’s Office of Management and the Planning Department, cut them in half.
“Along with a lot of other departments,” we’re trying to do more with less,” said Planning Director Zendo Kern. “The technology helps, being able to go virtual. For the most part, it’s been working pretty well.”
Some others saw increases.
The Department of Human Resources, for example, didn’t have a large travel budget to begin with, $13,657 in 2019-20, but it more than doubled to $32,056 for the coming year. That’s because contracts for all eight of the county’s public worker bargaining units expire June 30.
“This is the first time in a very long, long time that all collective bargaining units expire at the same time,” said HR Director Bill Brilhante. “We projected out we’d be very involved with that.”
Collective bargaining is done on the state level, with each county getting one vote at the table and the governor getting four. So far, most of the negotiations have been done through teleconferencing programs such as Zoom. But that might change, Brilhante said, as the state reopens.
“Fortunately, we’ve been able to reduce expenses and we’re hoping that we can maintain that,” he said, “but the sense is the negotiations are more productive and effective when they’re in person.”
Other expenditures in the budget are $2.5 million to be distributed to nonprofit groups through a competitive process. The county increased the minimum $1 million required by law to go to nonprofits to $2.5 million starting last year.
The County Council annually selects grant recipients from a pile of applications submitted by nonprofits. The council forms an ad hoc committee of four members to conduct interviews and sometimes site visits and submit recommendations to the council.
The council’s contingency relief funds — usually $100,000 per council member but last year reduced to $35,000 each — has also been zeroed out. That money would allow council members to each have their own little pot of money to give in a noncompetitive process after council approval to nonprofits and county agencies that request it.
“It is a very significant fund and important to our respective districts. It allows us to directly help our communities and Administrative departments to provide needed services,” said Council Chairwoman Maile David. “I am concerned that it’s been entirely defunded, however, hopeful that when the amount of federal assistance coming to the state is determined — which should be shortly — we will have a clearer picture of where we stand financially, and be in a better position to address contingency funds and other budgetary issues.”