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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 14, 2010

Funds for school fixes funneled to special vote

 •  Despite progress on repairs, projects still await funding


By Paul C. Curtis
Garden Island
Advertiser Staff

PUHI, Kaua'i The special election to fill the U.S. House seat vacated by Neil Abercrombie as he prepares to run for governor has nothing to do with Kaua'i because that congressional district doesn't include Neighbor Islands, right?

Wrong.

Gov. Linda Lingle authorized the transfer of $389,481 from the Neighbor Island public schools repair and maintenance account into an account to help fund the special election for the seat in urban Honolulu's 1st Congressional District.

That move concerns state Rep. Jimmy Toki-oka, D-15th (Līhu'e-Kōloa).

Tokioka said Lingle didn't want to have to ask the state Legislature for money for the special election, so she went the route of reducing restrictions imposed on various programs in the state Department of Accounting and General Services instead.

Among the several functions of DAGS is public school repair and maintenance for the state Department of Education, and running elections, as the state Office of Elections is administratively attached to DAGS as well.

In a Feb. 24 letter to Russ Saito, DAGS comptroller, Lingle used her authority to reduce restrictions by $389,481 for Neighbor Island school repair and maintenance, and by $113,346 for the Office of Elections, to help pay for the special election.

She also authorized in the letter moving that $389,481 into the Office of Elections account.

The Legislature likes money to be spent on what it's appropriated for, said Saito, adding that state law allows Lingle to move no more than 10 percent of specific appropriated funds for other purposes.

Saito wanted to make it clear that DAGS is obligated to perform repair and maintenance functions at public schools through an agreement with DOE, and that the $389,481 moved for the special election won't affect any Neighbor Island school repair and maintenance projects.

"We perform our function" for DOE. "We are fulfilling our obligations," Saito said Friday.

In these days of budget deficits, shortfalls and a sagging economy, there is a DAGS budget for X amount of dollars, and Lingle-imposed restrictions for Y amount of dollars, meaning that, even though the DAGS budget might be, say, around $145 million (the DAGS fiscal year 2009 operating budget), Lingle has mandated restrictions that DAGS can't spend anywhere near that amount, Saito explained.

The money for the special election, said Russell Pang, Lingle's chief of media relations, has to come from DAGS (where the Office of Elections is administratively located).

A nagging backlog of repair and maintenance projects has been a perennial problem in Hawai'i's public schools.

Some campuses have been plagued by conditions ranging from cracked walls and leaking roofs to termite infestation, and have had to wait years for repairs.

A decade ago, the state's repair and maintenance backlog approached nearly $1 billion. The state has made progress since then, but as recently as 2008, the backlog was estimated at $412 million.

Meanwhile, a number of repair and maintenance projects are under way at public schools on Kaua'i and elsewhere, but scores of other projects are on backlog status and not yet funded, according to the Department of Education's Factrak Web site (www.factrak.k12.hi.us/).