No gas tax relief: Council kills 10-cent discount on 4-4 tie
A deadlocked County Council on Wednesday put the brakes on any relief from the county gas tax this year, even after the measure’s sponsor tried to make the plan more palatable by adding a deadline limiting the 10-cent per gallon discount to eight months.
Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder proposed Resolution 363 to offset continued high prices on gasoline and diesel at the pump. Hawaii Island’s average price for regular unleaded on Wednesday was at $5.427 a gallon, according to the American Automobile Association. In Kona, the price hovered around $5.59 per gallon.
The measure would cost the county highway fund about $5.5 million and offer resident a savings of about $1.20 to $2.60 a fill-up, depending on the size of the vehicle.
Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder pointed to a $20 million surplus in the highway fund as one reason drivers should get some relief as the county Department of Public Works didn’t have the capacity to spend the money quickly enough.
“This is not going to break the bank. … The fuel tax is really taxpayer money; it’s not our money,” he said. “Although it might be considered manini to us, to those driving from Puna to Kona everyday five times a week who are low-income, this is huge.”
Council Chairwoman Maile David, who represents South Kona and Ka‘u, agreed.
“Our people need some break,” David said. “For some people two bucks is a lot.”
The majority of testifiers during three council hearings and one public hearing on the measure were in favor of it.
Also voting yes were Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas and North Kona Councilman Holeka Inaba.
Dissenting council members on the 4-4 vote — Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung, Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, Hamakua Councilwoman Heather Kimball and Kohala Councilman Tim Richards — said the savings aren’t significant enough and the need for road repairs is so great that they couldn’t support the measure. Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz was absent.
Richards said he worried the county would miss its chance to have matching funds ready for the influx of state and federal highway money flowing to the island. He was also concerned that the county might put $140 million in federal relief funds in jeopardy.
“What I don’t want to do is miss the window,” Richards said. “I think it’s very shortsighted to try to save a few dollars now and not repair the roads.”
Kimball said her constituents are saying, “keep the tax and pave the roads.” She noted her district has almost 70 miles of roads classified in “poor” condition, as well as a number of failing bridges.
“I just have some very unsafe roads in my district,” she said. “I just can’t support it.”
Public Works Director Ikaika Rodenhurst said the county aims to pave 25 miles of roads annually using in-house staff at a cost of $500,000 a mile. There were no roads paved during 2020 because of the pandemic, he said.
“Just because the money wasn’t spent doesn’t mean the need was met,” he said.
In addition to the in-house paving projects, the county contracts out for engineering and construction on major road projects, he said, with Mamalahoa Highway, Hina Lani Street, Kilauea-Keawe Avenue and Waikoloa Road the top four projects for which he’s seeking federal and state matches.
The gas tax was 8.8 cents a gallon until 2017, when the County Council voted to raise it incrementally to its current 23 cents. The county tax is in addition to 18 cents per gallon in federal tax and 16 cents in state tax.