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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 21, 2004

County taxing authority unlikely for now

By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Staff Writer

The four counties face an uphill battle in getting taxing authority and a share of uncontested traffic fines, key legislators say.

Honolulu is looking at a 1 percent general excise tax increase to pay for a proposed rail system, although Mayor Jeremy Harris yesterday said the city is considering building a less costly system without federal money.

However, the chairmen of the two legislative money committees said they probably will not grant taxing authority — at least not until a formal rail proposal is on the table.

"If we're even looking at any kind of tax increase, it would be to probably look at some of the priorities we have in terms of either education or dealing with the ice problem," said Sen. Brian Taniguchi, D-10th (Manoa, McCully) chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Those issues would take precedence over transit and allowing counties to raise taxes, he said.

Finance Chairman Rep. Dwight Takamine, D-1st (N. Hilo, Hamakua, N. Kohala), said any tax increases would be a hard sell in the House. "I think whether a tax is county generated or state generated or even federally generated, it's imposed on the same people in Hawai'i and I think there has to be clear accountability," he said.

Even if the two biggest items do not pass the Legislature, executives from the four counties had several other items on the wish lists they presented to the two committees yesterday.

Harris told the committees that collective bargaining increases have driven up the city's fixed costs by $176 million over the past decade and asked the state to review the negotiation method for public unions. "The City and County of Honolulu usually has little say. In fact, I believe, if I am not mistaken, we have voted against each one of those pay raises and yet we've had to absorb the costs," he said.

Harris yesterday also told reporters before going before the committee that the city is looking at going solo on financing a rail mass transit system because delays in getting federal funding drive up the costs and outlast the local political will for a $2 billion project.

He said he would prefer building a relatively unobtrusive monorail system at a lesser cost than a bulky light rail system, but there is no federal funding available for a monorail.

"It takes so many years to go through the procedures, and they have set strict requirements, that the cost of the project gets elevated and ultimately you are not able to sustain the political will for the project long enough to get through the whole laborious federal process," he said.

"So, I think as long as we are determined to go through the federal process, we will never have a transit system in Hawai'i," he said.

A state task force in October suggested constructing a 22-mile light rail system from Kapolei to Honolulu with a $2.6 billion price tag to be paid by some form of tax increase.

Andrew Levin, executive director for Hawai'i County, read Big Island Mayor Harry Kim's testimony, which asked for a multipurpose senior center in Kailua, Kona, funding for a Hilo Judiciary Complex, financial assistance with closing the Hilo landfill and road and highway improvements.

"We recognize the current financial hardship the state of Hawai'i is going through now, yet we continue to seek your help in achieving common objectives," Levin said.

For Maui County, irrigation systems for Kula and Molokai are priorities, as is eradicating the coqui frog and other invasive species.

Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa said the state should spend the money now, instead of letting the problem get further out of hand. "The sooner we can react to invasive species, the better we can handle and control it," he said.

Arakawa was concerned the state was giving up eradication efforts, when the noisy frogs still irritate residents and visitors. "If any of you have had the opportunity to try to sleep while the coqui frog is singing its love song, you would find it's probably the most annoying thing you will have to sleep through," Arakawa said.

Kaua'i Mayor Bryan Baptiste highlighted the need for adolescent and residential drug treatment centers on his island, pointing out that adolescents in need of rehabilitation have to leave the island to find it.

Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Treena Shapiro at tshapiro@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.