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Council finds money for golf, contingency funds in tight budget

Fees for sewers and rubbish disposal will continue to increase, taxes could rise for luxury second homes and services will be cut countywide, but County Council members still found room in the budget Thursday to add another $565,000 for their contingency accounts and golf subsidies.

The council on a unanimous vote approved on first reading Mayor Harry Kim’s proposed $585.1 million budget, Bill 144, after unanimously approving the extra spending. Kohala Councilman Tim Richards voted kanalua, expressing reservations, before voting yes on the budget. The final reading of the budget is set for June 4.

Kim and the council are pinning their hopes on legislation dubbed “CARES Phase 4,” currently making its way through Congress. The money, if it comes, will go directly to local governments and can be used to offset budget deficits, under current plans. None of the recent federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding is available for that purpose.

The county, however, has to have a new budget in place to start July 1, and it’s not known when, or even if, federal relief will arrive. Kim said if money comes in, he’ll submit an amended budget with the new spending.

“I think everybody in 50 states are crossing their fingers that Congress would pass something. … Everything is on hold until further notice so to speak,” Kim told the council.

With a $40 million shortfall, county departments cut their spending by about 10% by eliminating all but essential travel, equipment and supplies, said Finance Director Deanna Sako. She said the county also delayed filling vacant positions, is unfunding some noncritical vacant positions and will postpone or cancel noncritical programs or services. Sako said discussions are ongoing statewide about possible employee furloughs.

“I’m seeing that there have been substantial reductions in almost all departments in order to balance the budget (and) basically all relate to services,” said South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David, who chairs the council Finance Committee. “Everybody’s taking a huge cut in their budgets.”

Richards said most jurisdictions he’s talked with as part of his work on the National Association of Counties are cutting their budgets by 15% to 20%. He said Hawaii County’s cuts amount to about 7%.

“It would appear that we have to double the cuts that we have,” Richards said. “I don’t think we’ve cut enough right now and I’d rather cut now and re-appropriate later.”

Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder asked if the previously approved increases in tipping fees and sewer rates could be postponed. Postponing the scheduled tipping fee increase at the landfill would cost about $300,000.

“(It’s) a small gesture the county could do to relieve the burden on the general public right now,” Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said. “We’re not talking about a large increase, but it would help the general public right now.”

Local businesses are hurting, two testifiers told the council. Michelle Melendez, a Kealakekua fitness business owner, said she was speaking for 100 local businesses urging the county to let businesses reopen.

“Our economy should not be closed,” Melendez said.

Bob Johnson, an Alii Drive vacation rental owner, said county officials should take a 20% pay cut before asking for continued sacrifices from businesses and wealthy property owners.

“It’s time for a shared responsibility,” Johnson said. “Modern day Robin Hood — forget about it.”

Of the extra spending added by the council, $315,000 will go to council contingency accounts, a typically $900,000 fund that was zeroed out in Kim’s budget. The remaining $250,000 will go for a subsidized golf program in West Hawaii.

Contingency funds are little pots of money — this year, $100,000 per council member — for each council member to donate at their discretion, with council approval, to nonprofits and county departments. Council members say the money is important because they know the needs of their districts and can move quickly to address them.

Council Chairman Aaron Chung of Hilo, who sponsored the amendment, pointed to council members’ use of contingency funds to help nonprofits feed people as one example of the program at work.

“If the (COVID-19) situation proved anything, it’s that we have a need for these type of funds,” Chung said.

Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas sponsored the budget amendment to add $250,000 to keep a golf subsidy at private courses in West Hawaii. She said it’s an equity issue as the only county-paid municipal course is in Hilo.

The program pays some of the golfer’s fees at golf courses that agree to participate.

“Folks are feeling the pains of quarantine, give them an opportunity to spend time outdoors on the golf course. I think it’s a viable spend,” Villegas said. “Allowing for a little more access to a sport that many on this island find near and dear.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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