HILO — Despite an annual budget of only $12,600 for travel-related costs for three county professional associations, five County Council members are currently attending the National Association of Counties convention in Washington, D.C., a trip that is likely to cost $3,000 per council member.
Council Chairman J Yoshimoto said he approved the trip for four newly elected council members as well as Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi, the council’s representative on NACo as well as the other two associations — the Hawaii State Association of Counties and NACo’s Western Interstate Region.
Yoshimoto said Monday he won’t know for sure until the members come back and submit their expenses, but he thinks there’s money in the budget to handle it. Onishi’s trip is paid by NACo, he added.
“Our preliminary figures show that we’re going to be under budget in certain areas,” Yoshimoto said. “If there is going to be a shortfall, then we’ll make it up within our budget.”
The budget also covers travel costs for HSAC, which meets bimonthly on different islands, and the Western Region expenses as well.
South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford questioned why so many council members are attending when the county is still recovering from the recession and Mayor Kenoi is still calling for reductions in travel and conference expenses.
Ford, who said she hasn’t attended a NACo conference in her six years on the council, said she gave her priorities to the council’s representative, Onishi. She questioned why so many freshmen councilors in particular are attending.
“The reason we choose a particular representative is they have some prior knowledge of council business, they’re conversant in council business and what the county needs,” Ford said. “To send five people in a very, very tight budget year is not in my personal opinion fiscally prudent.”
Ford added that her comments aren’t about any particular council members attending. In addition to Onishi, councilors attending are Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha, North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff, Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter and Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan.
Yoshimoto thought it especially important that freshmen councilors attend, to learn more about how other counties are handling problems similar to those Hawaii County is experiencing.
“The new council members benefit the most from NACo because of the seminars and the informational sessions,” Yoshimoto said. “They gain knowledge to better serve the people.”
Both Kanuha and Ilagan, speaking Monday afternoon to West Hawaii Today by telephone from the conference, said they’re learning a lot from the sessions.
“It’s definitely interesting,” Ilagan said. “I’m focusing on agriculture and I’m trying to find out what I can to take back to my district.”
“I’m seeing how different counties are dealing with the same issues we have and we’re not the only county that has the problem,” Kanuha said.
Kanuha added that the councilors are meeting with Hawaii’s two U.S. senators today and the U.S. representatives Wednesday. That’s especially important because the congressional delegation is also relatively new, he added.
“To bring all this new knowledge back, especially to Hawaii Island, is a big deal,” Kanuha said.
Both Ilagan and Kanuha also expressed excitement about a NACo discount prescription drug program they said would benefit county residents.
The county has had this program in place since former Ka‘u Councilman Bob Jacobson signed the county up about five years ago.
Brittany Smart, who served one term as Ka‘u councilwoman, last year had a NACo representative make a presentation to the council about changes to the program that included a rebate the county could use to promote the plan.
Kanuha and Eoff have scheduled a community update on their trip from 5:30 to 7 p.m. March 19 at Kona council chambers in the West Hawaii Civic Center.