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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 28, 2010

Amid budget crunch, Hawaii County spends $400K for new furniture

By Nancy Cook Lauer
West Hawaii Today

HILO, Hawaii -- It's an age-old problem: You move into a new place, and none of your old stuff looks right in it.
Hawaii County's solution: Spend another $400,000 on furniture and window treatments on top of the $24.6 million already spent to renovate the County Building on Aupuni Street.

County administrators justify the latest expenditure, even in a tight budget year, as money that was approved by the County Council in 2008 and not spent. After the latest batch of purchases approved March 18, there will still be $500,000 appropriated and not spent.

"It's a need to have versus a nice to have," said Public Works Director Warren Lee, who had requested the money. "Four hundred thousand is a lot of money, but we spent millions in renovations and we need to finish it."

Lee said employees have said they're uncomfortable with the windows where people walking through the building can look into their work areas. In addition, some office space was reconfigured and where tall room dividers once worked, the staff needs short ones and vice versa, he said.

Money also will be spent to furnish a new conference room that now sits empty, said Finance Director Nancy Crawford.

The explanations don't satisfy Hamakua Councilman Dominic Yagong, who was chairman of the council Finance Committee when the money was appropriated.

He said council offices received all new furniture four years ago when they moved to temporary quarters, and when they moved back to the County Building, they got all new furniture again. He said he asked what happened to the old new furniture and was told it went to the administration.

"Just because the money is available, doesn't mean they have to spend it," Yagong said. "Everyone would like to have new carpeting, new furniture, all new stuff. But it seems that this is not the time to do it."

The timing of the new purchases comes just as Mayor Billy Kenoi and his staff appear before the County Council to justify the new county budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Kenoi is expected to address budget issues at 9 a.m. Monday in the council room in the renovated building. The council Finance Committee meets through Wednesday.

The budget news is grim, and Kenoi's budget includes a number of unpopular measures. Property taxes would go up, county employees would be furloughed and a number of programs, including the county bands, would be cut, under Kenoi's plan.

The renovation project was paid for with bond funds. In essence, the county borrowed the money and although renovations are part of the capital improvement budget, the payments come out of the operating budget. Annual debt service now accounts for $41 million, or 11 percent, of the county's $375.4 million spending plan.

The council had approved an additional $5.5 million for the County Building when the design had to be changed midstream. That added another year to the time frame, and county staff began moving into the two-story, 45,000-square-foot building in November.

The county took on the renovation project in 2006 to remove asbestos from the 40-year-old building, repair its leaky roof, provide better access for people with disabilities and reconfigure office space.

Roughly 150 employees from nine departments and the legislative branch of local government worked in the building before the renovation work started.