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Maui mayor seeks more money to cover wildfire costs

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen is making an overtime plea to state lawmakers for more Lahaina wildfire recovery funding.

Bissen, in letters dated April 18, just shy of two weeks before the end of this year’s legislative session and after all public hearings on bills, asked House and Senate leaders to appropriate $125 million instead of $63.6 million to Maui County for wildfire recovery work pending in a bill.

The $125 million sought by the county is mix of $50 million in bond financing, which the county would have to pay back with interest expense, and $75 million in cash. The $63.6 million proposed by lawmakers is bond financing requiring repayment by the county.

Bissen’s requested funding to recover from the Aug. 8, 2023, disaster that destroyed most of Lahaina and killed 101 people would help pay for work that includes developing a landfill for permanent fire debris, potable water system repairs, wastewater system repairs, road repairs and land acquisition to improve evacuation routes.

“We have appreciated your collaboration and willingness to work together to find solutions to the challenges Maui County faces in the wake of the August 2023 wildfires,” said Bissen in the letters to House Speaker Scott Saiki, Senate President Ron Kouchi and two chairs of committees overseeing state budget appropriations. “Mahalo for the opportunity to provide you with information on these matters.”

Bissen did not previously submit written testimony on the pending legislation dealing with state wildfire recovery appropriations, Senate Bill 3068, which was the subject of four public hearings and proposes to appropriate $460 million for a wide range of uses.

The state budget bill, House Bill 1800, had proposed a $69.5 million appropriation for Maui County, and no testimony from Bissen was received on that measure either.

However, Bissen told the Senate Committee on Ways and Means during a Feb. 20 briefing that Maui County wanted the state to cover $402 million in what otherwise would be county wildfire recovery costs over the next three years.

“Never before has Maui come to this body with a more urgent, critical and justified need,” he told the committee led by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who received one of the recent letters. “We must make our people whole again, and we cannot do it without the support of the state.”

A written request for the $402 million was received by the administration of Gov. Josh Green on Feb. 19.

During the Feb. 20 briefing, Bissen also said that Maui County anticipated spending $198 million from its own revenue on recovery work.

Maui County Managing Director Josiah Nishita told the committee that part of the reason for the county’s request is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse the county for some costs, but not until 2027.

Of the combined expected $600 million expense for Maui County, Nishita said $338 million is needed to fix infrastructure for Lahaina property owners to rebuild, $161 million is for housing and $102 million is for emergency response costs.

Laksmi Abraham, director of communications and government affairs in Bissen’s office, said Tuesday that $78 million of the $402 million request is for temporary housing for fire survivors that the state could develop as opposed to appropriating $78 million to the county to develop housing.

Of the $324 million balance, Abraham said the county’s original request was for $151 million in the fiscal year starting July 1, $144 million the following fiscal year and $29 million a year after that.

Since its original request, the county reduced the amount being sought in the coming fiscal year to $125 million in cash and bond financing from $151 million in cash, Abraham said.

Saiki and Kouchi could not be reached Tuesday for comments on the letters from Bissen.

Dela Cruz said during a Tuesday evening meeting discussing the state budget bill that most of the state’s wildfire recovery appropriations would be carried out in SB 3068 and another measure, Senate Bill 582.

Final drafts of those bills have not yet been agreed upon by House and Senate negotiators. A final draft on the budget bill was agreed to Tuesday after House and Senate negotiators ironed out differences between earlier House and Senate drafts.
Source: The Garden Island

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