Aquatic Resources facing 'harsh' cuts
By Ilima Loomis
WAILUKU, Maui — The state Division of Aquatic Resources could shut down operations on Maui and other Neighbor Islands under a budget plan being considered by the state Legislature, officials are warning.
The state Senate is proposing a total of $4.2 million in budget cuts and spending restrictions for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, said DLNR chairwoman Laura Thielen. The cuts would "obliterate" Aquatic Resources, she said, and also seriously affect DLNR enforcement, the state Historic Preservation Division and the department's Commission on Water Resource Management, which is handling major reviews of stream-water uses on Maui.
"It's going to have a very harsh effect on the department," Thielen said.
State Sen. Clayton Hee, D-23rd (Kāne'ohe, Kahuku), who proposed the cuts, said he believed that the department had enough unused funding from vacant positions to cover the cuts and restrictions. He said the programs that would receive the money under his proposal, including a youth education program at the University of Hawai'i's Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island in Kāne'ohe Bay, are important and deserving of funds.
"We looked at vacant, funded, frozen positions ... and we transferred some of those funds to HIMB to provide opportunities for young students to study marine biology," he said.
But Thielen said her department had nowhere near the savings Hee seemed to believe, and that the cuts he proposed, coming after DLNR had already reduced its budget by $5.8 million, would be devastating.
She noted that the cuts would not be used to plug the state's budget shortfall but would go to create an entirely new program.
"Given the fiscal crisis the state is in, these may be wonderful programs, but I'm perplexed why Sen. Hee, in this of all years, would propose new programs at the expense of cutting existing programs," she said.
Maui legislators said last week that they were still getting information about the dust-up, but that they would work to keep the funding in the budget for DLNR. Senate and House lawmakers were meeting in conference over the weekend to resolve the differences between their respective budget proposals, with a final budget expected this week.
While the Senate budget proposal would impact a wide range of DLNR operations, department officials said cuts to the Division of Aquatic Resources could have an especially severe effect on Maui.
Under the proposal, Aquatic Resources would be cut by $1.2 million, or 60 percent, Thielen said. That would result in the loss of more than $4 million in federal funding that requires a state match, she said.
With a reduction of that size, the division would have to lay off more than a dozen employees and shut down its offices on all Neighbor Islands, she said.
"This would be it for Maui," said Russell Sparks, an education specialist in the Division of Aquatic Resources' Maui office. "For Maui, the Big Island and Kaua'i, the offices would close completely. All the staff would be laid off."
The seven employees on Maui perform a wide range of functions, including monitoring the health of the island's aquatic environments and providing data to state policymakers who create programs to protect fragile streams and reefs. Fish and coral surveys by division staff sparked the recent creation of the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management area off Kā'anapali. And staff conduct stream studies that assist the state water commission in setting minimum stream-flow standards.
State aquatic biologists also help with DLNR enforcement, identifying species and evaluating impacts in cases of coral damage or illegal taking of protected species.
"We often work hand-in-hand with our enforcement division," Sparks said. "They would be on their own."
Other operations of the department that Thielen said would be impacted by the cuts include:
• The state Historic Preservation Division, which would see an 8 percent cut to its operating budget and a six-month hiring freeze.
• State parks, which would see the deputy administrator position abolished.
• The state water commission, where the deputy director/administrator position would be abolished.
• DLNR administration, where the deputy director position would be eliminated.
"At this point, my hope is the Senate has realized an error in the budget and will be correcting it," Thielen said.
Hee said it was still premature to talk about the impacts of his budget proposal for the department.
"We're really early in the process, and that's why it's regrettable that conclusions have been made and presumptions have been put forth on the Neighbor Islands by people in the DLNR," he said.
He said the Senate Ways and Means Committee had proposed eliminating a number of deputy positions in the department, as part of its efforts to balance the state budget.
Hee maintained that his proposal to divert funding from the department for the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology would take money only from vacant, frozen positions and would not impact Aquatic Resources or result in any layoffs for the division.
"I would be the last person to agree to close down the Division of Aquatic Resources," he said. "Its role in Hawai'i as an aquatic state cannot be measured."
But Sen. Shan Tsutsui, D-4th (Kahului), said Thielen's concern appeared to be justified. He said he reviewed the budget proposal and it appeared clear that it would force the DLNR to use money from the Aquatics budget to fund operations on Coconut Island.
"I would tend to disagree with Sen. Hee," Tsutsui said. "My belief is it would have a negative impact on the department and their responsibilities. We're going to try to do whatever we can to make sure those provisions are taken out of the final budget."
State Rep. Gil Keith-Agaran, D-9th, (Wailuku, Pu'unēnē, Makawao), said he had heard "a lot of interest" from the community on the proposed budget for the Division of Aquatic Resources. He noted that the House budget plan did not include the Senate's cuts to the division.
"What happens will depend on what kind of agreement we reach in conference," Keith-Agaran said. "But I think the House generally recognizes that Aquatic Resources plays an important role."