Mayor, council settle down to budget business

  • Mitch Roth

The county’s finances are in a “precarious” position and the administration and County Council need to put aside “petty politics” and work together, Mayor Mitch Roth said Tuesday in his first budget presentation before the council’s Finance Committee.

“We have many problems. Our county is in a race against time with decrepit and outdated infrastructure,” Roth said. “Our systems and infrastructure have been left out to languish, to rot, to crumble. … To address it properly will not take millions, but billions of dollars.”

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Infrastructure has gotten so bad, a 10-year-old wrote to his office to complain about the condition of the roads, he said. Wastewater systems are also in disrepair, he said.

Still, Roth said, it’s not the time to raise taxes.

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.

“If we continue to raise taxes and raise the cost of living, we’ll push out the very families we promised to help,” he said.

Roth hopes to rely on grants, public-private partnerships and other sources of revenue, while cutting expenses by breaking down what he called government silos and bureaucracy. He extolled the virtues of a new computerized permitting system set to go into effect in July that will speed permits so “people can build and workers can work.” Every new structure contributes to the tax rolls, he said.

“The status quo has left us with more problems than solutions and I believe we’re better than that,” Roth said. “I believe if we work together and shy away from playing politics, we’ll advance this county and solve its greatest problems.”

Council members, who have the authority to appropriate funds and set property taxes, weren’t about to let Roth’s statements go unchallenged.

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung asked Roth for specifics explaining his comments about putting aside petty politics. Roth said he’d rather not talk about it.

“You brought it up. It leaves the public with some kind of impression that there’s some sort of schism between the administration and the council,” Chung responded. “You cannot just throw that kind of stuff out and then not talk about it.”

Roth, apparently still smarting from the confirmation process for several members of his Cabinet, and more recently, a failed appointee to the Leeward Planning Commission, said he was “pretty disgusted with it.”

Chung said it’s the council’s prerogative to vet nominees, adding that he’s discussed several initiatives with the administration but no one followed through. It was the council’s actions, not the mayor’s, that resulted in U.S. Rep Kai Kahele, the Democrat representing Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, touring the county sewer plants to see if they qualify for federal funding, Chung said.

Hamakua Councilwoman Heather Kimball said she didn’t want to see the council and administration “getting off on the wrong foot.”

“This is where the rubber meets the road,” Kimball said, tapping her hand against the printed budget documents on the dais before her. “We’re going to argue with you . .. but that doesn’t come through a political place, it comes from all of us wanting to do the very best for the community. We all want to do well but we may have different ways of getting there.”

Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas said there have been some “challenging statements,” but she’s optimistic the two branches of government can come up with a plan to make the most of limited resources.

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“There have been some hiccups and unfortunate political maneuverings or perceived agendas,” Villegas said. “While this is a fiscal document talking about specific amounts of money, I think within every one of us is an intention of serving, to manage this county and the resources we have.”

The mayor has until May 5 to submit his final proposed budget, which will be taken up and likely amended by the council before going into effect July 1.

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