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No testimony offered on county budget

April 16, 2014 - 12:05am

Not a single Hawaii County resident showed up for Tuesday night’s budget hearing.

The Hawaii County Council held the hearing at the West Hawaii Civic Center, with videoconference sites in Hilo, Pahoa and Waimea. Council members adjourned the hearing, the first opportunity county residents had to weigh in on the administration’s proposed budget, within minutes of its 5 p.m. start time.

Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille said after the hearing the budget does include some controversial proposals, such as the mayor’s request to increase his deputies’ salaries. Those controversial ideas are “in the details,” she said, and the public may not be aware of them. A more noticed — and debated proposal — is something like last year’s property tax rate increase, she said.

“What I’m not sure everybody understands is, the valuations have gone up,” Wille said. That means property owners will pay more in property taxes, even without a rate increase.

Wille said she believes the county needs to take a three-pronged approach to the budget talks. The first is recommendations from the Real Property Tax Task Force to address the tax code. The second is more of a push to secure a larger portion of the Transient Accommodations Tax, which comes from hotel stays. The county provides services to visitors staying in those hotels, Wille said, and deserves a larger portion of that tax.

Finally, she said, she would like to see a hearing on more than just the proposed budget.

“Should we have a session on how to create revenue?” Wille asked. “We’re always talking about can we tighten our belt. What opportunities do we have to make additional funds. That whole issue gets lost.”

Last month, Mayor Billy Kenoi announced his biggest budget since taking office. His request was for a $412.6 million budget, 4.6 percent higher than last year’s, and 2.3 percent higher than the budget in place when Kenoi took office in 2008. Once amended and passed by the County Council, the budget begins in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Rising property values and last year’s tax increases resulted in a $13 million rise in property tax revenues, a 5.9 percent increase.

The budget reflects $18.4 million in increased employee expenses, most of which comes from union raises negotiated at the state level. The increases come even as the number of employees dropped from 2,787 in 2008 to 2,628 last year.

In addition to covering salaries, the county has added $1.9 million for employee health expenses and an additional $1 million into the GASB 45 post employment health benefit account.

Other changes include about $300,000 to be added to the Parks and Recreation budget to cover the increased costs of managing Mauna Kea State Park, which the county is acquiring from the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The mayor will submit an amended budget May 5 that takes into account certified property values, and council members will be able to propose their own amendments.

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