It’s all still a waiting game as Mayor Mitch Roth works on his proposed budget, with the county awaiting word from the state and the state awaiting word from the federal government before anticipated revenues become more solid.
Roth, who along with his Cabinet addressed the West Hawaii Forum on Thursday evening, said it’s frustrating not knowing how much in federal and state grants might be coming the island’s way or how much in state programs the state usually pays for may not be funded this year.
The forum, conducted remotely via Zoom, was sponsored by the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce and the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Jacqui Hoover, executive director of the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board.
“It’s still frustrating to sit here and tell you, ‘here’s our budget,’ but we don’t know what is being taken away from us,” Roth said. “The Legislature is trying to balance the state budget. Unfortunately, there have been a lot of bills that have gone through the Legislature, that are still going through the Legislature that really take moneys away from the counties.”
Roth’s $590.8 million preliminary spending plan is just $4.8 million more than last year, a scant 0.8% increase. That funding comes from a 3% increase in property tax revenues due to increased values, bringing in an additional $9.9 million. The mayor has until May 5 to submit his final proposed budget, which will be taken up by the County Council before going into effect July 1.
“When the mayor said it’s bare bones, he’s not kidding,” Finance Director Deanna Sako said.
She said Hawaii County has the lowest per capita property tax burden of all the counties in the state.
Roth mentioned two state programs in particular — a career criminal program in the county Prosecutor’s Office and lifeguards at state beaches on the island — that hinge on action in the state Legislature.
“We’re hoping that the governor and the Legislature start to put some of those funds back,” he said. “We just don’t know what we don’t know.”
On the bright side for the county, $36 million to $39 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding is expected to come directly to the county over the next two years, Sako said. That money will be slated toward keeping the community safe amid the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
“In all fairness to the state, they’re also waiting for guidance from the U.S. Department of the Treasury,” Sako said.
On the minus side, collections from the general excise tax, fuel taxes and tax surcharges on utilities remain down, and the county is unlikely to get any money from the transient accommodations taxes on hotels and short term rentals for the second year in a row, she said.
In departmental updates, officials said the county’s homelessness programs have been moved from the Mayor’s Office to the Office of Housing.
Building permits in the county’s West Hawaii office have been whittled down from 185 in the queue three months ago to 75, which includes 30 new permit applications added last week, said Planning Director Zendo Kern. Permit processing is expected to slow come summer, however, as the county installs its computerized Energov system linking Public Works and Planning departments that should cut processing time in the long run.
“We’re slowing down to speed up,” Roth said.
The county is pushing to get projects shovel-ready, especially in the Department of Public Works, in order to take advantage of any federal infrastructure grants that may come available.
The Ane Keohokalole Highway extension is undergoing an archaeological study, Waikoloa intersection improvements are in the design phase, Waianeuneu Avenue is being reviewed for federal funds and Henry street, Alii Drive culvert, Kilauea Avenue and Kalanianaole Avenue are actively being worked on, said Public Works Director Ikaika Rodenhurst.
“We’re actively pursuing what we can with federal funds as well as getting those projects ready and eligible for federal funds,” Rodenhurst said.