Former Mayor Harry Kim is quick to point out the tough economic straits Hawaii County was in when he took office in 2000.
Perhaps it’s a reaction to his opponent for the office, incumbent Mayor Billy Kenoi, equally as quickly noting how his office dealt with declining property tax revenues the last four years, something Kim never faced in his eight years at the county’s helm.
A West Hawaii Today analysis of the county’s operating budget, number of employees, property tax revenues and property tax rates going back to 1980 showed only two mayors have faced decreases in real property tax revenues. Those two mayors, Kenoi and Stephen Yamashiro in the 1990s, were also the only two to cut the number of county employees.
Since 1988, the first year for which employee figures were available, the peak number of employees showed a two-thirds increase, from about 1,700 to 2,500 under Kim’s leadership. In the last four years, the county’s payroll shrunk by 114 employees, the figures showed.
In 1983, the county changed how it calculated property tax rates, going from a rate charged at 60 percent of fair market value to the system still used today, with the rate applied to 100 percent of the property’s value. After that change, no mayor until Yamashiro made any changes to real property tax rates, when he dropped the rates for homeowners by $2.55 per thousand dollars of valuation. Kim increased some of the classification rates in 2001, then decreased eight of the nine classifications several years later.
Kim recorded the largest percentage increases in operating revenues and property taxes of any mayor since 1980. The county’s real property taxes increased 175 percent while Kim was mayor. Herbert Mayatoshi recorded a 78 percent increase in property tax revenues from 1980 to 1985. Lorraine Inouye’s two-year term in the early 1990s saw a 43 percent increase, while 1980s mayors Dante Carpenter and Bernard Akana saw 20 percent and 27 percent increases respectively.
Yamashiro saw the property tax revenues rise slightly, just 2 percent, at the end of his eight years in office. Kenoi, by contrast, has seen revenues drop 15 percent since taking office.
Kim’s tenure also saw the largest operating budget growth, more than doubling, from $196 million in 2000 to $403 million in 2008, a 129 percent increase. Under Matayoshi, the budget increased from $44 million to $64 million, a 46 percent increase. Other increases included $64 million to $81 million, or 27 percent, under Carpenter, $81 million to $118 million, or 46 percent, under Akana, $118 million to $147 million under Inouye, or 25 percent, and $147 million to $175 million, or 16 percent, under Yamashiro.
Kenoi’s budgets shrank from $403 million to $365 million, or 9 percent.
Kenoi, who worked as one of Kim’s executive assistants, often draws on the stark contrasts between the budgets Kim’s administration worked with and the ones he’s had to deal with the last four years.
“The numbers are certainly surprising,” Kenoi said.
He said he’s proud of how county employees have continued to provide good services while cutting the “cost and size of government.” It’s a phrase Kenoi has used countless times the last four years, even before his mayoral campaign heated up this spring.
“We’re very proud of the fact that we were able to maintain service,” he added. “We knew government had grown beyond what we could afford.”
The county’s economic circumstance in the early 2000s wasn’t just a slowdown, Kim said Friday.
“It was a crash,” he said. “In the late 1990s and early 2000s this was very, very hard times for people on the island. You will never forget the extra hard times of the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s.”
Times may have been tough in the early 2000s, but it was Kim’s predecessor, and boss, who faced the first shrinking budget in roughly 15 years. Six of Yamashiro’s eight years in office, from 1993 to 2000, recorded decreasing real property tax revenues, leading Yamashiro to cut the county’s operating budget four nonconsecutive years.
Kim said when he took office, he took over a county that had been laboring under a hiring freeze for several years.
“I don’t think any mayor before (Yamashiro) or after him was faced with that decision making,” Kim said, referring to the tough economic situation the county faced during those years.
Under Kim’s leadership, the county added 379 positions. Kim said those additions included 140 police officers, 140 fire personnel and the employees of the newly created Department of Environmental Management, which he said the county was mandated to create.
The first time he raised taxes, in 2001, Kim said his goal wasn’t explicitly to improve government services. He was just trying to balance the budget.