Council approves 4.1% budget increase: Parks, Fire, Police, licensing clerks among additions to Roth’s budget

  • County vehicles collect rubbish at the Kealakehe Transfer Station. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • County vehicles collect rubbish at the Kealakehe Transfer Station. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

Equipment for firefighters, repairs at parks, beefed up computer systems, more hours of community policing, four additional vehicle registration and licensing clerks and money for council contingency accounts added $1 million to Mayor Mitch Roth’s proposed operating budget, bringing the final tally to $610.1 million after final passage Thursday by the Hawaii County Council.

The no-new-taxes plan anticipates $10.5 million more from property taxes through increased evaluations as well as $5 million more in grants and $3.1 million more saved from this year’s budget. There’s also fiscal relief from $19.6 million from the American Rescue Plan, the first of what is expected to be two annual installments.

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The council added programs and people by dipping into the fund balance — money not spent in the previous year carried over to the new budget year that begins July 1 — and by shifting some money around to keep the budget balanced. For example, money was shaved from some positions that had been approved but weren’t expected to be immediately filled, and $250,000 was removed from the workers’ compensation account.

The budget, a 4.1% increase over this year, was approved 8-0, with Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung absent.

Adding two new vehicle registration and driver’s licensing clerks in Kona and two in Hilo is expected to go a long way addressing community concern, council members said. The four positions total $216,447 in salaries, wages, retirement and fringe benefits.

Those positions are in addition to 12 new positions Roth added in various county departments and two part-time positions converted to full-time in his proposed budget.

“I believe the public has been very vocal and asking for these positions for a long time,” said Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder, who sponsored the amendment.

Other common public complaints deal with the condition of county parks and not enough police protection in neighborhoods, so Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy sponsored an amendment putting $100,000 into parks maintenance and $65,000 into community policing, giving each of the nine council districts about 200 extra hours of extra community policing.

The Fire Department wasn’t left out of the mix, either, with Lee Loy allocating $50,000 for equipment and Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz adding $160,000.

Kierkiewicz also added $250,000 for computer upgrades in various departments and an audit of county codes in the Planning Department. She noted that a computer failure earlier this year resulted in the loss of months of records that had to be manually re-entered.

Kohala Councilman Tim Richards, who voted with reservations on the amendments, said the process of drawing from the fund balance, especially when county officials won’t even know how much money is left when the fiscal year ends June 30, makes him nervous. He liked the amendments because they were based on outcomes, he said, but he wished there were a better process to accomplish that.

“This year was weird because of the expenses we didn’t incur,” Richards said. “The further we keep playing with the fund balance the more concern I have.”

So far, so good, said Finance Director Deanna Sako, who was keeping a running tally of expenses the council was adding on.

“I think we’ll be OK with the million but after that I might not be smiling,” Sako said. “We’re definitely trying to be conservative because our taxpayers are struggling as well.”

Even as they praised fellow council members for seeking creative ways to answer some of the $15 million in requests from department heads for programs left out of Roth’s budget, several council members also lamented the last-minute process that saw hundreds of thousands of dollars moved around in floor amendments that hadn’t been available to the public — or even fellow council members — in advance.

Lee Loy agreed the process was “clunky.” The budget came primarily from the previous administration, she noted. Much had already been outlined before Roth and his new directors took office in December.

“All the directors were handed something based on the goals and priorities of a previous administration,” Lee Loy said. “I really think we’re doing our very best to stand up a good budget.”

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Kierkiewicz agreed the budget-making process is an “ever-changing dynamic.”

“It is clunky, it is messy, but this is our process and we just have to own it,” she said. “We’re just doing the best we can with the tools that we have.”

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