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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Budget with Maui job cuts, furloughs approved

By Ilima Loomis
Maui News

WAILUKU The Maui County Council Budget and Finance Committee on Monday voted unanimously to recommend a budget for 2011 that would cut 108 county jobs and furlough remaining workers, while increasing property tax rates to partially offset lower tax collections.

The budget would provide $524.2 million for all county operations and infrastructure, cutting spending by about 7 percent from the current fiscal year. The county would spend about the same amount on county grants as it did this year, and the Maui Bus service would remain at existing levels, with a small fare increase.

The 2011 budget will go to the full County Council for first reading at 10 a.m. May 18. The council has until the end of the month to pass a budget for the coming fiscal year.

Mayor Charmaine Tavares and council members struggled with what to do about diminished revenues for 2011. With property values slumping, the county's take in real property taxes, its biggest source of income, would have been down more than 10 percent if rates stayed the same as this year.

Council members supported Tavares' proposal to furlough county employees for one day each month, a plan expected to save the county about $3.4 million over the year. But the furloughs will impact public services in addition to the county's bottom line. Tavares has already said that pools and landfills will close once a week starting July 1 due to staff shortages.

The council went a step further than Tavares in cutting the county work force. While the mayor had proposed freezing 60 positions her administration had identified as not immediately necessary, council members eliminated those positions and cut an additional 48 positions that are currently vacant.

The move drew objections from Tavares and some of her department heads, who said some of the cuts would disrupt county operations.

And by erasing the positions from the books, the council would make it impossible for county directors to fill them later if they find additional savings in their departments and would require that they go through a complicated and time-consuming process to create the positions again.

While nonprofit agencies raised concerns earlier in the year about potential cuts to their county grants, the council ended up budgeting $33.8 million for nonprofit programs only $16,550 less than they received this year.

Bus fares would increase for some passengers, but the council's budget would preserve the bus pass system, and passengers on social service transportation would continue to ride for free.

Passengers on the Wailuku and Kahului loop routes and the Lahaina Villager route, who previously rode for free, would pay the same $1 fare charged for all fixed routes under the new budget. The fare for commuter routes would go up from $1 to $2.

Bus passes would cost $20 for riders who don't use commuter routes, or $45 for a systemwide pass. Senior and student riders would continue to pay $30 for a pass.

On the revenue side of the budget, Tavares initially proposed increasing property tax rates to levels that would be close to "revenue neutral," meaning the dollar amount most landowners would pay would be about the same as or a little bit less than this year.

But after hearing from hotel operators, bed-and-breakfast owners and other taxpayers who objected that the proposed property taxes would still be too high for them to pay in a year when their own incomes are also down, council members agreed on a smaller rate increase for some categories.

Overall, taxpayers would pay about 8 percent less in property taxes for 2011 under the council's budget proposal, although final property tax rates will not be set until a special hearing on May 17.

On Monday, Council Budget Chairman Joe Pontanilla reported that over the weekend his staff had identified a $1.1 million error in the council's budget calculations. The council had moved money from the General Fund to the Highways Fund to pay for the Maui Bus pass system and countywide road improvements. But the amount was not deleted from the General Fund balance, he said.

To correct the issue, the committee agreed to take several infrastructure projects that had been budgeted with cash, and add them to the county's bond issue instead.

The county would borrow a total of $45 million for capital improvement projects under the council's budget - well within the limits finance officials said would be considered acceptable by the bond raters who set the county's interest rates.

The council's budget would spend $89.6 million on infrastructure, about 12 percent less than the current year.

Notable projects in the budget include Upcountry water storage development ($1 million); War Memorial Football Stadium improvements ($2.2 million); Kahekili Highway road resurfacing ($1.2 million); a new Kihei police station ($20 million); Lahaina Fire Station addition ($1.1 million); West Maui wastewater reuse system improvements ($5 million); Old Lanai Gym renovation ($250,000); Nahiku Community Center ($250,000); countywide wastewater injection well rehabilitation ($2 million); and bus stops and shelters ($1 million).

However, council members voted to withhold two projects, the Kihei police station and the Lahaina fire station expansion, from the county's bond authorization. That means county administrators will have to come back to the council and request special approval before they can get the money.

The Budget and Finance Committee also added two provisions that would require the county Department of Environmental Management to investigate alternatives for recycling wastewater and conduct water quality sampling and monitoring in West Maui before it could spend money budgeted for injection well improvements.