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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 26, 2006

State of City speech did not close the deal

Mayor Mufi Hannemann's State of the City address on Friday was long and filled with details but in the end not entirely successful in making his case about the challenges ahead for Honolulu.

Hannemann's basic message was familiar: Honolulu faces a host of unglamorous but important tasks that cannot be handled without broad public-private cooperation and strong support from taxpayers.

And without naming names, he made it clear he places most of the blame for the city's current situation squarely on the shoulders of former Mayor Jeremy Harris.

"For years we avoided facing the realities of the cost of public services," he said. "The truth about the city's financial condition was hidden through sleight-of-hand, the plethora of grandiose projects diverting our attention from the underlying question of how we were going to pay for it all."

It's time now for Hannemann to get past his unhappiness with what he inherited and get on with the job.

The bulk of the speech had to do with the "no frills, nuts and bolts" $1.49 billion budget for the coming year that will require strong tax support. That means, Hannemann suggested, that property owners cannot expect much tax relief.

That was a painful message, but one that was absolutely necessary. And the mayor deserves credit for facing the matter directly: "Can we forgo the collection of the additional taxes?" he asked. "I'd love to. Can we afford to? I'm afraid not."

MESSAGE LOST

Unfortunately, because the speech covered so much ground in fact too much ground this frank and important message became somewhat lost.

Hannemann devoted a good portion of his speech to a spirited defense of his administration's record on solid waste.

This became a sore point after he was criticized for canceling a curbside recycling program that had been developed by the Harris administration.

In fact, he argued, the city is doing a great deal to eliminate the stream of solid waste going into landfills through a new automated system of curbside recycling of green waste and other initiatives. This should refute any perception that the city hasn't done enough about solid waste, he argued.

But while those comments did the job of explaining what the city has done, they still did little to explain why a more comprehensive curbside recycling program is not possible.

While he didn't say it in so many words, Hannemann made it fairly clear he intends to reject a City Council measure that calls for the closure of the Waimanalo landfill site in Leeward O'ahu in 2008.

Still, he acknowledged the unhappiness of Leeward residents.

"It is patently unfair to assume it's OK for only one part of our precious island to be the repository for all of O'ahu's 'opala and that the residents who live closest to the landfill will simply have to grin and bear it," he said.

BENEFITS PACKAGE

To ease the pain, Hannemann proposed a $2 million "community benefits package" for the affected areas.

A benefits package is a good idea, although it is doubtful that $2 million fully captures the value the rest of the island gains by having the landfill at Waimanalo Gulch.

A fuller analysis of the equities gained and lost is needed.

In a speech that covered everything from the number of potholes that have been filled (nearly 47,000, in case you were wondering) to which roads are due for resurfacing soon, Hannemann devoted only passing comment on what he called "three vexing problems" Honolulu must confront: affordable housing, drug abuse and homelessness.

By any measure those are three key problems facing Honolulu today. But Hannemann offered little in the way of solutions.

On affordable housing, he said the city is working on reducing permit processing time. On drug abuse, he said he would name a task force to look into the problem. On homelessness, he suggested this was primarily the state's problem, but he said the city will do what it can to support state homelessness efforts.

The relative vagueness on these three matters suggests there is little the city can do about them in any event. The mayor should focus his energy on things he can impact, including sewers, transit and property taxes.

In all, it was an honest speech that offered a sobering look at the difficulties and challenges ahead. But because it tried to cover so much, it sort of sank under its own weight, leaving the mayor with much more political persuasion ahead of him.