HILO — Hawaii County Council members say they are working to assess public opinion concerning the budget proposed Thursday by Mayor Billy Kenoi.
The $394.3 million budget addresses a number of cost cutting measures taken over the past several years, adding 28 new employees, putting money into the GASB 45 retirement fund and buying new equipment for county agencies. To pay for those increases, it introduces across-the-board property tax increases of about 10 percent.
Council Chairman J Yoshimoto, who represents South Hilo, said Friday afternoon that public feedback would be very important to council members as they move forward.
“Now the real work begins,” he said. “We need to look at what our needs are and our wants are, and whether we’re willing to pay for it.”
Yoshimoto said that members of the public are never happy about tax increases, but he felt that they would understand that some increases may be necessary to continue offering the level of services that area residents require.
“Public safety, roads, parks. All these areas of the budget have been decreasing. Ever since the mayor came into office. I gotta give the mayor credit, he’s trying to provide services, and tax increases are never popular. … Now, we’re pretty much trying to decide how long can we sustain the county with the level of services we have now without increasing the budget. Maybe now’s a good time to look at it (increasing the budget),” he said.
Puna Councilman Zendo Kern said it was still too early for him to have a position on the proposed tax hikes.
“I’m still in the process of reviewing the newly proposed budget, and making sure I have my mind around the whole thing,” he said. “I have been talking to my constituents, and received both people for and people against the increasing property taxes. At this point, I’m still embracing my constituents and seeing what they want. … For me, it’s about finding that balance, making it work for as many people as possible.”
Kern said he is in the process of doing more community outreach, and possibly setting up some meetings, although speed is going to be a factor.
“The challenge is our time frame. Ideally, we’re hoping we’ll receive plenty of testimony from folks. They’re welcome to email that in,” he said.
Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter said she, too, is working to develop her position on the budget, and requested on Thursday that the mayor make time to address her constituents.
“I’ve asked him to host a meeting in my community, to do a presentation to get feedback from the community on how I should proceed,” she said.
She added that she fully understood why some taxpayers would be upset about the proposed increases. But, Poindexter argued, the county must also take into account the pressure under which public safety workers find themselves.
“It’s never a good time for increases. Never a good time,” she said. “But we have to look at the growth in population, and seriously take a look at our public safety issues, including in the fire department, prosecutor’s office, police, and even parks and recreation. When it comes to public safety, we know we are very, very behind in respect to population growth. We need increases in those departments, but where does the money come from?”
North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff wrote via an email Friday that county department heads had presented compelling arguments for their needs during Special Finance Committee meetings.
“We learned that their budgets have been cut for four consecutive years, and that they have done their best to maintain core services … but they have reached at point where some increases to their budgets are necessary to maintain the minimum vital services to keep up with maintenance of equipment, roads, parks and public safety,” she wrote.
She said that she supports the appointment of a Real Property Task Force to investigate discrepancies in the way properties are assessed, but added that any suggestions for systemic repairs would not come in time to be implemented during the current fiscal year.
“The proposed 10 percent property tax hike deserves careful scrutiny and the council will have to make some tough decisions,” she concluded. “I’m looking forward to hearing from the community and other councilmembers during the next few weeks during the budget review hearings.”
The council’s review process for the budget will begin on May 13, and once passed by members it is slated to go into effect on July 1.