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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 8, 2009

Core services must survive budget-cutting

At a time when the bruises of economic distress are evident everywhere, collaboration becomes not only beneficial but a key to survival.

Locally, gestures of such collaboration, including overtures by Gov. Linda Lingle seeking state-county meetings on budgetary challenges, have found a receptive audience among county leaders.

This is a welcome development, but one that comes with a cautionary note: In uncertain times, assigning new duties to the counties could put their core functions at risk.

Lingle, who has made progress in achieving labor savings through the ongoing collective bargaining process, has grappled for months with an ever-widening state budgetary gap.

She suggested in a Web address last month that some state services could be administered at the county level as a way to manage statewide cost-cutting.

To that end, Lingle has requested a meeting with the Hawaii State Association of Counties to discuss ways of sharing governmental burdens.

Some of the overlapping functions Lingle cited, such as road and parks maintenance, are worth exploring for potential cooperative savings in terms of materials and other efficiencies.

But this potential is limited. Roads and parks upkeep are among the essential services that local government provides and, given the prospect that labor negotiations are sure to affect staffing at all levels, counties may be hard-pressed to offer the state much relief.

And counties are even less strategically positioned to help with established state functions such as homeless services, which do not yet exist at the county level.

Adding to the local-government job list might dilute county performance of its bedrock duties of maintaining public safety and infrastructure.

A more fruitful object for these meetings would be to explore external boosts from public-private partnerships that may reduce expenses on both county and state ledgers, at least for the short term. The governor's proposed call for volunteerism also could factor into a solution.

Ultimately, both state and local governments need the same things: judicious cuts in services and creativity in finding ways to make those cuts less painful.