It is six months since the general election and days away from the spring equinox. Change, rebirth and hope should be in the air — unless that air is Hawaii County politics.
County Council members — if they could — would be singing “Kumbaya,” as they so often have cited their ability to work together, as a unit, harmoniously. And they have.
But the council hasn’t tackled a single important issue. Rather, its members have been consumed in deep deliberations over resolution after resolution — none of which has the bearing of law and many of which are directed at topics and issues falling within the purview of the state administration or Legislature.
Although heavily populated by freshman members, nothing new has floated to the council surface — unless it was a sudden urge of importance and priority to expend tax dollars to attend a National Association of Counties meeting on the mainland. Their rationalization of the expense will be interesting, though not necessarily informative.
Mayor Billy Kenoi, meanwhile, was entitled to a half-time break after his electioneering. However, he progressed from a top-speed churn of project blessings and showcasing to a near-dead stop in moving forward on key issues.
A fresh council, untried, untested and largely malleable, presented an opportunity for Kenoi to move issues through the legislative branch more easily, yet he did not.
His proposed budget that included ending furloughs — but does not make GASB 45 employee retirement payments — was appropriate, boasting only a $5.7 million, or 1.5 percent, increase that relies upon a projected real property tax revenue increase of $2.4 million, or 1.2 percent, as a result of increasing property values.
Otherwise, the silence has been deafening and surprising for a politician who has fewer than four years remaining in his term and whose political aspirations remain either veiled or undetermined. However, he is astute enough to know that any move to higher office, whether in Honolulu or Washington, will require he indelibly make his mark over the next few years.
His ability to churn out the Ane Keohokalole Highway on short notice was an admirable but rare opportunity, literally a gift horse for him to ride. None such exists on the horizon.
What does exist, however, are several balloon pay-ments the county cannot dodge, most important of which is garbage.
In the early 1990s, during the administration of former Mayor Stephen Yamashiro, the county’s first integrated solid waste management plan laid out plainly what many already knew: the Hilo landfill is finished. Or so we thought. Sliver fill methods, new projections and extended permits have allowed nearly two additional decades of use.
But the East Hawaii landfill days are numbered. As the lifespan counts down, options expire along with days. New landfill sites, reuse and recycling, waste to energy — each takes time to implement, time the county no longer has as a luxury.
Where is Kenoi — or any of our esteemed council members — on this pressing issue? Are they all whistling past the graveyard?
Already the county hauls waste — from Laupahoehoe westward and down to Pahala — to the Puuanahulu Landfill in North Kona. An unannounced “experiment” to haul all rubbish to Kona, excuse the expression, raised a stink in the months before the election, prompting promises and council measures that — for now — precluded trash hauling. Of key concern was the Waimea area, whose residents didn’t care for a steady stream of trash trucks joining the timber trucks hauling through town.
Yet hauling has been, was, and likely still is the fallback “solution” embraced by the county. It is a workaround that could have worked seamlessly, had the Saddle Road realignment been completed — a route sure to enable easier trash hauling, as well as a more direct route to the 30 percent of the county’s bus ridership taking Hele-On to work from East Hawaii to the Kohala Resorts.
The death of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, however, was a death knell for many Hawaii pork projects; most likely included among the casualties will be the last leg of the Saddle Road. Though its completion is favored by our present congressional representatives, combined they lack even a fraction of the political horsepower Inouye’s seniority brought to bear on this pork.
Is there enough solid waste generated in East Hawaii to support another run at waste-to-energy? In the years since the county bailed out of an earlier waste-to-energy proposal, has technology improved and changed efficiencies of scale? And how, given the ever-changing environment of energy costs and renewable energy sources, would a purchase of power agreement with HELCO play out? While our county budget now subsidizes solid waste expenses, the county is already changing the playing field on what the public had — green waste disposal and mulch retrieval, for one — and what services it will provide, as new fees are added and services eliminated. What will be the appropriate means for funding the handling of the waste we generate? Tipping fees have cycled before the council with near leap-year regularity, yet ultimately fail as the possibility of roadside rubbish blooms to cloud unrealistic expectations with realities. And yet the county fails to consider solid waste fees attached to real property taxes, following the same nexus of sewer fees and water bills for those who enjoy those services.
Most disturbing, however, is the dialog has not begun and the clock is running down.
During his campaign, the mayor expressed awareness of the situation, yet nothing has since been said. The council has members who know what lies in waiting, yet they, too, have not pursued policy or projects in that regard. Less than two years from now, they may move on, as will Kenoi in less than four, yet the problem will remain for residents.
If we allow the county to continue to ignore the problem of East Hawaii’s solid waste, the price we pay will be greater than money alone.