Big Island mayor slams ‘devastating’ cuts
By Peter Sur
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer
Should the County Council make deep cuts in the county budget that threaten core government functions, Mayor Billy Kenoi is ready to veto it.
Although he didn't drop many names during a press conference he held Wednesday in Hilo, Kenoi left no doubt he was targeting the amendments of council members Dominic Yagong, Pete Hoffmann and Brenda Ford. All three have argued strenuously against the mayor's attempt to make up for budget shortfalls in the coming fiscal year with a mix of property tax increases in certain categories, cuts in services and two furlough days per month for all county employees, except those in the public safety sector.
"If these amendments were to come to me, these amendments that we believe haven't been well thought out, that will have a tremendous, devastating impact on our residents and citizens, I will certainly veto it," Kenoi said.
The mayor's public statements come in advance of what is expected to be a long and difficult council meeting that begins at 7:30 a.m. Monday in Hilo. There, lawmakers will decide whether they should balance the budget with property tax rate increases in seven of the county's nine property class rates, or whether they should impose deep cuts to public services.
Given the circumstances, Kenoi hopes council members choose the former.
"I urge the County Council to scrap what we consider these last-minute, ill-conceived cuts to the Hawaii County budget that we believe is irresponsible and that we believe will be harmful to our community residents," Kenoi said in his office.
The Kenoi administration's tax rate increases would raise $23 million to close the projected deficit that remains after the other budget cuts and worker furloughs. He's careful to state that the proposed rates, even with the increases, will collect less money than in the current fiscal year. The decline is due to falling property values.
"We don't believe we're increasing taxes. Yes, we're adjusting rates, but how can we be increasing taxes when we're collecting less tax money next year than we're collecting this year," he asked.
Kenoi then turned attention to specific budget cut proposals. First up was Hoffmann's proposal to raise $4 million in the sale of county land, "with no details about which lands, what lands, or the process that those lands will be sold in."
Then he hit a proposal to cut $100,000 for the Fire Department's Waikoloa base helicopter program for parts and maintenance. Sixty percent of that was a state grant, Kenoi said, and that would hurt emergency response.
Proposals to cut police and fire overtime would also damage the county's public safety response, he said.
"Again, poorly thought-out amendments," Kenoi said. He called out proposals from Hoffmann to cut $750,000 to the Solid Waste Fund and cuts to maintain public safety towers and radio equipment.
Among other things, Kenoi criticized a proposal by Yagong to defer a $5 million payment to retirement benefits, saying that would put the county in a deeper hole in the coming years.
Kenoi said that his administration was still in negotiations with the public worker unions on furlough details and he hoped to reach agreement "in another week or so."
Then, the mayor took his message on the road, holding a public talk story in the Pahoa Neighborhood Facility. Playing up his Kalapana ties and throwing in a light pidgin inflection, he tried to rally several dozen in the audience to his side. Kenoi spoke of the challenges of leadership and criticized a certain councilman — likely Yagong — who offered numerous amendments without consulting the administration.
"He's never called me on the budget," Kenoi said. "He never sent me a letter."
At the same time, Yagong was holding his own public meeting at the Wainaku Gym to get constituents' input on his proposed amendments. The councilman's meetings continue tonight at Honokaa Gym and Friday at the Papaaloa Gym Annex; both begin at 6:30 p.m.
Yagong, who until last year was chairman of the council's Finance Committee, proposed some 80 percent of the amendments. Yagong suggested the mayor, having proposed his budget, "sit back and relax, and let the process unfold."
"Mayor Kenoi and the County Council need to leave their egos at the door because it is going to take cooperation and open-mindedness to come up with a budget that benefits the people of this island," Yagong said.
Yagong's proposed cuts total more than $16 million out of a $376 million budget.
"Hundreds of people are against this (property) tax increase," he said recently.
Kenoi came to Pahoa to talk about the budget, but about half of the spirited discussion focused on the Police Department's handling of the marijuana issue.
If the amendments pass and Kenoi vetoes them, it will take six council members, a two-thirds majority, to override the vetoes.
With one council member already indicating he's in favor of a tax increase and four others on the fence about the budget, it's unclear whether two-thirds will stand against the vetoes. Most council members did submit at least one budget amendment, however.
Yagong thinks public input could make a big difference.
"The council is going to be exposed on this one," Yagong said. "I truly believe council members will vote in a way that best represents the people's wishes."