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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Harris defends tax increases

By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Staff Writer

As the Council Budget Committee began hearing various proposals to Mayor Jeremy Harris' budget plan, the mayor yesterday defended his bid to raise property tax rates and announced a plan to preserve money for about 75 vacant police and fire-fighter jobs.

Harris criticized a proposal by Councilman Charles Djou to avoid a real property tax rate increase by cutting $24 million from the city's operational expenses, calling it unrealistic and irresponsible.

According to projections by Harris' administration, Djou's proposed budget amendments would shave between 10 percent and 75 percent from various city departments' operational budgets and wreak havoc on public safety and other services.

"I think our concern is that the various cuts proposed by various members of the council are really not well thought out," Harris said.

His comments came after city Budget Director Ivan Lui-Kwan told the City Council Budget Committee that Djou's proposals could effectively shut down the city.

The committee yesterday discussed four user fee proposals and the real property tax rate increase for all categories except condominium and apartment owners. While the fee proposals were advanced for a 4 p.m. April 30 public hearing, the tax rate vote was postponed until Thursday morning because two of the five committee members were absent and Djou would not vote to advance it. At least three votes are required to advance it.

The City Council has until June 15 to approve the city's $1.178 billion operating budget and $288 million construction budget.

Meanwhile, Lui-Kwan delivered a letter to the council that detailed an agreement with the Honolulu police and fire departments that would preserve all vacant positions, for which money was not set aside. Members of the Budget Committee had taken issue with the administration's proposal to cut the money for uniformed public safety positions, while at the same time proposing tax and user fee increases amounting to nearly $50 million.

The police department will now be able to keep the money needed to fill 41 vacant uniform and eight vacant civilian positions, while the fire department will retain 26.5 vacant uniform positions.

The money — $1.5 million for HPD and $800,000 for HFD — will be earmarked within the Salary Adjustment and Accrued Vacation Pay provisional account, which is used to for pay raises and accrued vacation pay for retirees. The mayor noted that some money may need to be reallocated into the provisional account later.

Harris said the move will restrict the city's capabilities next year, but will not require the city to cut any services. "We'll simply do it by belt-tightening and restricting our spending in other departments," he said.

He added that it was better than cutting money for economic development programs, such as Sunset and Brunch on the Beach, which are each budgeted at $140,000 for next year. Eliminating both programs would not save the city enough to drop property tax rates even by a penny, he said.

Outlining the impact of Djou's proposals for the committee, Lui-Kwan said the city would lose $1.3 million for utilities, forcing closure of police stations, the medical examiner's office, city hall, the Honolulu municipal building and Kapolei Hale.

Another $1 million cut would mean no repair or maintenance for the 800 MHz radio system used by police, fire and other emergency and public service agencies. A failure would "significantly impair public safety," Lui-Kwan said.

Reach Treena Shapiro at tshapiro@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.