Mayor Billy Kenoi laid out an ambitious slate of projects Tuesday, while acknowledging the fiscal realities that could prevent the county from reaching those goals.
Parks, roads and a final plan for dealing with the county’s solid waste topped Kenoi’s priorities, the mayor said in a speech to members of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. Kenoi highlighted plans for the Old Kona Airport Park, now being called Makaeo Park. The county is in the special management area permitting process now.
“Our goal is to make sure before we leave (office), the Makaeo Master Plan is achieved,” Kenoi said, noting the plan calls for increasing grassy areas and meandering paths. “It’s one of the most heavily used parks on the island. It should be a park we’re proud of.”
He’s not proud of one particular state property, Mauna Kea State Park. Kenoi reiterated his desire to take over management of that park on Saddle Road. Right now, he said, the park is an embarrassment to people who live on the island, and Kenoi said Hawaii County could do a better job managing it than the Department of Land and Natural Resources does. He also said it makes sense for the county to take over Hapuna Beach State Park, noting the state already pays the county for lifeguard services “at one of the best beaches on the island.”
He criticized state Department of Land and Natural Resources administration of its properties on the island, additionally citing the Banyan Drive area in Hilo and the state’s neglect of the Naniloa Hotel under its jurisdiction. He said DLNR should stick to natural resources and historic sites — and leave the parks and Banyan Drive area to the county.
Kenoi also said he wants to see a final answer to the county’s solid waste problems in place before he leaves office. He has, he noted, 44 months left in his second term.
“It’s got to be waste reduction,” he said, adding Hawaii County sends about 537 tons of solid waste to landfills daily. If Hawaii County could get proportionally the same rate of energy H-Power on Oahu is getting from its solid waste tonnage, that would translate to about 15 megawatts of electricity a day, Kenoi said.
The mayor and Public Works Director Warren Lee said the county is looking at the initial planning phases of the next legs of Ane Keohokalole Highway, which run from Hina Lani Street to Kaiminani Drive, and from within the Palamanui development up through Makalei Estates to connect with Mamalohoa Highway. The segment from Hina Lani to Kaiminani will cost an estimated $80 million, Lee said.
Lee offered updates on several additional road projects in response to audience questions. The county is continuing to work on the Lako Street extension, but archaeological discoveries have slowed progress. Lee said he wouldn’t describe the Alii Parkway project as “dead,” rather the county is re-evaluating the environmental impact statement.
“Because of the price tag, it’s not at the top of the list to do,” Lee added.
Kenoi said the county has made clear to the buyer of the bankrupt Hokulia project that county officials expect full payment on the $20 million settlement to build the road, or the county will be taking the land used to secure that payment. He would like to see construction begin on the second half of the Mamalohoa bypass, from Halekii Street to Napoopoo junction, this term, too, even if the county has to issue bonds to pay for it. Lee said he expects to go out for bid on the remainder of the road by the year’s end.
Funding is a problem, Kenoi acknowledged, especially with state Legislators talking about taking the counties’ portions of the Transient Accommodations Tax again. Two years ago, Kenoi and the other county mayors convinced legislators to cap counties’ portions of the TAT in exchange for letting the counties get some funding. Hawaii County gets about $17.5 million in TAT annually.
“It’s paid entirely by the visitor,” Kenoi said, noting that visitor arrivals have been up, so the state has been pocketing the increased revenue without increasing how much the counties get. Taking the counties’ portion of the tax “shifts a tax burden paid entirely by the visitor to property tax owners.” He said visitors use county services, from fire and police, to solid waste and parks, so there is a strong rationale for returning a share of those taxes to the county.
The counties’ main revenue source is property taxes, and raising them is one of the only ways counties could offset TAT losses.
State officials are also eyeing another tax, the utility franchise, now paid to the counties, Kenoi warned.
“We’re asking the state to look elsewhere for revenue,” Kenoi said. “You’re balancing the budget on the backs of county residents.”