Big Isle setting stage for future
By Billy Kenoi
Big Island Mayor
Lopaka: In hard times like these, private businesses have to cut back, and the Big Island has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. How is county government cutting back?
Mayor Billy Kenoi: We submitted a budget that cut 55 vacant positions, the most at any one time in county history. We cut the county budget by 4 percent, the first time the budget was cut since 2001, including 43 separate cuts to the county budget, and every department budget was cut by 10 percent. My staff and I are being furloughed one day a month, a savings of $41,714 a month. We have also established an Expenditure Review Committee that approves all out-of-state travel, equipment purchases and other county expenditures.
Kathleen: Why were council leadership positions reorganized? Why are so many very significant positions being shifted at the same time? I am concerned that experienced and knowledgeable members and leadership roles — Pete Hoffmann as vice chair of the council, Dominic Yagong as chair of finance, and Brenda Ford as chair of public works and intergovernmental relations — were changed and replaced with individuals less experienced and untrained on the county council.
I am concerned about this restructuring of power, which could be a manipulation of power and perhaps distorts the fullness of our democracy and the people's process in government, for our island community.
Kenoi: It is important that the public understand it is the prerogative of the council to reorganize itself without interference from my administration.
The concept of separation of powers empowers the county council to reorganize itself as it sees fit. For me to become involved would be akin to the governor trying to intervene to select the leadership of the Legislature.
Keawemahi: I understand the county will furlough some workers but not others in the coming year. Why was that done?
Kenoi: The only furloughs planned for County of Hawai'i employees for the coming year will be the members of my own staff. I asked the appointees in the mayor's office to work for one day a month without pay for the coming year, a step that will save the county $41,714. The furloughs include myself, the managing director, deputy managing director and executive assistants.
We must prepare for the difficult economic times that we know lie ahead. I asked my executive staff to lead that effort by accepting a furlough day each month as part of their contribution to solving our budget problems.
At the moment we have no plans for more widespread furloughs at the county level, but we will be asking all of our hard-working public employees to do more with less. It's only fair we should lead by example.
Mrs. Lee: I live on fixed income so I really need the free county bus service , but I wish there were another midday bus from Hilo to Volcano so I wouldn't have to wait in Hilo all day after my doctor appointments. Please keep the county bus service free and can you please add buses from Hilo to Volcano.
Kenoi: Our bus riders know the county system has been going through a major expansion. We increased bus service on some of the bus system's most popular and heavily used routes in February, including the routes from Pahoa to Hilo and the route from Hilo to Kona and back. We also boosted weekend service; another increase in service is planned for August.
Our bus ridership for the year ending in May is up 32 percent from the previous year, and if you throw in the shared-ride taxi service and transportation we provide to people with disabilities, we expect to exceed 1 million public transportation passenger trips this fiscal year for the first time ever.
We will acquire the first double-decker bus in the state of Hawai'i, and we will use federal stimulus money to buy two new 49-passenger coaches for the longer bus runs.
We have also ordered nine new buses that will arrive this year. On your question about the Hilo-to-Volcano run, we are planning additional midday service early next year for that particular route and continuing on to Ka'u.
Malia Smith: How would you rate our island's chances of getting federal stimulus money for the Kona-side mid-level road? What other Big Island projects might be in line to get federal stimulus funding?
Kenoi: We are very appreciative of the support of both our congressional delegation and the state administration. U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye and his staff have been very supportive of our requests for federal stimulus funding. Hawai'i County is slated to receive over $46 million for road and infrastructure projects. Of that, $35 million is designated for the Ane Keohokalole Mid-Level road in Kona.
We held workshops last month in Hilo and Kona detailing more than $94 million we expect to receive in the county from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which is the federal economic stimulus bill.
This funding will create jobs and provide critical services, and represents an important investment in the infrastructure of our community.
Tiffany: As the leader of this island, shouldn't you say something about this overwhelming public perception that the Hawai'i County Council has pretty well shut the door and put down the shades on open government?
I think to create harmony islandwide, you should say something about this Sunshine Law violation that happened in the last couple of weeks.
Kenoi: Our administration is committed to open and transparent government as evidenced by myself and my entire Cabinet visiting every community on this island and answering every question posed by community members in an open forum.
We are also committed to working with all of our County Council members to ensure open and transparent government.
Bruce: Beyond the TMT (Thirty Meter Telescope) initiative, what other projects is the mayor's office initiating and/or supporting to bring greater economic opportunity to the Big Island? What do you think are the highest priorities — and the greatest obstacles — to bringing opportunities to our residents? How much progress has been made to date on these initiatives?
Kenoi: The two largest industries on this island are the visitor industry and construction, and we have moved rapidly to shore up both industries.
We are supporting the $50 million Target/Safeway project in Hilo, and the consolidation of the Keaukaha Military Reservation Armed Forces Reserve Center, which will inject another $50 million in the economy. We are working to expedite the state's $73 million Phase II Queen Ka'ahumanu project, and to ensure that we move forward with the $35 million Mid-Level Road.
We are also moving forward with county construction projects like the $9 million Makalei Fire Station, the $25 million in Department of Water Supply projects, and the $50 million West Hawai'i Civic Center.
We are working with the airlines to make sure more seats are available to bring visitors to Hawai'i Island. Alaska Airlines has agreed to start a new flight with service from Oakland direct to Kona.
We are also working with the Big Island Visitors Bureau to get direct flights from the Mainland to Hilo and are working with airlines to increase service to Korea and Japan.
We have met recently with all of the general managers of each hotel and resort (six of our 10 largest employers) and with our employee unions to work collaboratively to assist our hospitality industry.