Panel to scrutinize cost of government


A new Cost of Government Commission was seated Thursday, optimistic about finding ways to save taxpayers money.

The seven-member commission draws from the expertise of a wide variety of members, including several farmers and retirees, a nonprofit executive, a high school social studies teacher, a retired state tax auditor and former members of the county’s Economic Development Board and Workforce Investment Board.

“It’s not going to be a canoe that just travels in circles,” said county Managing Director Wally Lau, describing how everyone’s particular strengths are important.

The commission is chaired by Susan Maddox, executive team leader of the Waimea nonprofit Friends of the Future. Ashley Kierkiewicz, senior account executive for the communications company Hastings &Pleadwell, was named vice chairwoman.

But Hawaii County has actually made little progress on most of a long list of recommendations turned in by the former commission, which disbanded after submitting its report in July, 2011. That commission found itself stymied by collective bargaining agreements made at the state level that made it hard to implement policy changes involving county employees, which accounts for the lion’s share of the county budget.

That doesn’t mean county administration wasn’t listening. Several of the recommendations have been or are in the process of being implemented.

Among those was a recommendation that the county work on collecting some $2.6 million in past-due hauler fees by requiring payments at the scale house. That’s now whittling away at overdue fees, while court actions have commenced on others.

The county has raised vehicle registration and weight taxes — another previous recommendation — as another way to raise money.

There’s a new Real Property Tax task Force that is going after other revenue sources. The 2011 commission had recommended the county require financial documentation to qualify for agricultural property tax exemptions and eliminate homeowners’ property tax exemption for unpermitted dwellings.

The administration has also been trying to implement a countywide technology management plan and make greater use of videoconferencing and other technology instead of travel.

The first order of business for the commission will be to get a status report from department heads on which of the previous recommendations have been implemented, Maddox said. The commission has 11 months to study the issue, write a report and disband.

“It will help inform our work,” she said. “It’s a pretty big task in a short period of time.”

Recommendations such as allowing employees to work 10 hours, four days per week to reduce utility, overtime and travel costs, establishing a “voluntary furlough” program giving eligible full-time employees the ability to take off one day per week, reducing paid holidays and consolidating vacation and sick leave into personal time off and even cross-training employees to perform multiple functions within a department, pooling clerical staff among departments when appropriate and using volunteers and volunteer groups at all levels of county operations would not be able to be undertaken without employee union input.

Ditto for allowing the county to consolidate and coordinate inspection and enforcement responsibilities of the Planning and Environmental Management departments, Building and Real Property Tax divisions, and the state Department of Health into one division. The commission also recommended proposing a resolution to the state allowing the county negotiate its own employee contracts, according to the report.

Other recommendations that got little traction include restricting use of county take-home vehicles to employees required to respond to emergencies outside normal work hours, implementing a vehicle pool accessible to all county departments to limit the number of vehicles purchased by individual departments, reviewing the countywide operating budget semiannually or quarterly to make needed adjustments, cutting the monthly car allowance for police officers and replacing it with a yearly servicing and maintenance allowance and base fuel reimbursement for all department personnel on actual mileage rather than a fixed amount.

The Hawaii County Cost of Government Commission ideally includes one representative from each Hawaii County Council district and a nonvoting ex-officio member. It is convened every four years to assess costs and revenues as well as make recommendations on possible cost-saving measures. Previous commissions were formed in 2002, 2006 and 2010.