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Slow progress on PONC: Committee created to expedite land stewardship grants

The commission charged with overseeing land set aside for preservation has created a subcommittee to unravel problems in contracting with nonprofits to maintain the properties.

“I really see a lot of room for improvement personally in the way the stewardship applications are being written up and also the progress reports,” Deborah Chang, a member of the Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission said Monday.

Chang will lead a PONC subcommittee to determine where the problems are and help the Finance Department create an application package to make the process go more smoothly.

The commission is charged with prioritizing properties for purchase each year using a sweep of 2% of property tax revenues each year. A separate account, the maintenance fund, is paid from an additional one-quarter percent. Two charter amendments passed by the voters last year paved the way for PONC funds to be used to pay staff and moved the program from the Department of Parks and Recreation to the Finance Department.

Preservation advocates have become increasingly concerned that both funds are carrying large balances with little activity in buying properties or paying nonprofits to maintain them. In fact, the maintenance account has surpassed the $3 million cap where excess funds are supposed to be returned to the general fund.

The County Council got into the act last week as well, asking for an update from the administration about the backlog.

Some of the holdup came from the August transition of the program to the Finance Department and the coronavirus pandemic played a part as well, said Finance Director Deanna Sako. She said all but $8 million of the $20 million in the purchase account is encumbered, so the reality isn’t as worrisome as the appearance.

Slow contracts and payments for previous years are a function of a careful vetting process, Parks and Recreation Director Maurice Messina said.

“When I came in, I said we’re not going to write a blank check to anyone,” Messina said, adding just cutting checks without verification “would be the easiest thing to do.”

“We did such a
deep dive into every one of these,” Messina said of the grant applications. “It’s a daunting task.”

Some advocates and council members, however, wondered if the administration was dragging its feet in order to return some of the money to the general fund, where it could be spent for other priorities.

“There’s been some mishaps maybe and obviously we want to make sure the funds are being spent properly, but also we want to be sure the funds are going out and we’re not sitting on $3 million or not spending so we don’t have to put more in,” said North Kona Councilman Holeka Inaba.

Testifiers Cory Harden, with Sierra Club Hawaii Island chapter, and Debbie Hecht, campaign coordinator for the Save Our Lands Citizens’ Committee that pushed for charter amendments over the past two decades, urged the county to get more proactive.

“Mayor (Mitch) Roth has expressed strong support for the 2% fund. We applaud that and we hope it will translate into timely action,” Harden said. “Supporters put in a tremendous amount of work … to get two charter amendments for the 2% fund on the ballot and passed by voters last year. Voters said yes, people celebrated and then we’re not sure how much has changed.”

Hecht noted the Wednesday council meeting was a year to the day voters approved the two charter amendments.

“Why haven’t the charter amendments been implemented? ” Hecht asked. “Isn’t it the job of the government to implement and obey the law? … We really want this program to reach its full potential.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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