Public or private good? Council spending not always clear

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Hawaii County Council members say their discretionary funds provide quick aid to nonprofit groups that provide services in their districts.

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Hawaii County Council members say their discretionary funds provide quick aid to nonprofit groups that provide services in their districts.

In the past two years, several hundred small grants have been distributed through the program, covering a wide range of services or events, from parades to homeless shelter beds.

But some expenditures have a more clear public benefit than others. And not all go to providing services.

A Tribune-Herald review of grants since 2015 showed council members dipping into their Contingency Relief funds to provide $10,000 to help a lower Puna retreat center start a grocery store, $4,000 for an entry sign at the Hawaii Island Humane Society and $4,500 for tree trimming at an exotic animal sanctuary.

The nine-member council received $810,000 this fiscal year, or $90,000 each. Mayor Harry Kim is proposing to cut the funds in the next budget to zero.

The funds can go to any nonprofit or to a county department. Most go to the private groups through county agencies.

Council members Karen Eoff and Maile David provided the funds for the Humane Society sign and tree trimming at the Three Ring Ranch, an animal sanctuary near Kailua-Kona, from their contingency accounts in 2015.

They explained the expenditures in separate interviews by focusing on the services those groups, both nonprofits, provide to isle residents.

Asked if the tree trimming should be the county’s responsibility, David referred to the children who visit the animal sanctuary. “To me, it directly affects the safety of the students,” she said. “I see the benefit in it.”

Ann Goody, sanctuary executive director, said the trimming was done to prevent branches from falling on paddock fences during winter storms. She said the trees were on private property and didn’t threaten public infrastructure.

Goody said the tree limbs were seen as a liability for the sanctuary, but it didn’t have the funds to do the work all at once, which is why the organization sought the council grant.

“That was a particularly big project above and beyond what we were doing,” she said. “We really didn’t think about it as being an urgent thing at all until we had a couple limbs come down.”

Goody said the sanctuary could still have done the tree trimming without county funds, though it would have been done in phases.

“I can justify that because of the work they do,” Eoff said of the grant. “They help a lot of children not fall through the cracks with the opportunities they provide there.”

Each expenditure of the contingency funds, which need council approval, requires submittal of a request form which asks if the grant will benefit the public at large, as opposed to a private benefit. Both David and Eoff described the tree trimming as a public benefit in their request forms submitted to council.

Grants for the Humane Society’s sign also were listed as a public benefit.

The request forms say the funds, distributed through the Police Department, cover purchase of a permanent sign at the planned Keauhou Animal Community Center or entrance landscaping and rock wall enclosures.

The forms said they met department goals by helping the Humane Society open its new proposed location or by addressing shelter for animals, adoptions and enforcement of animal control laws.

Eoff and David acknowledged the grants didn’t directly help the county, which contracts with the Humane Society, with animal control or adoption services. But they said they thought it’s appropriate to use contingency funds to help the organization open the new location in Keauhou, which remains planned.

They said the Humane Society approached them with the request.

“I think the Humane Society benefits the public,” Eoff said. “… I mean the county isn’t funding their building at all. You have to identify where to turn.”

In 2014, contingency records show Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha gave $1,900 for ceiling fans, lighting fixtures and smoke detectors for the project.

Donna Whitaker, Humane Society executive director, didn’t return a phone call Friday.

A market at Kalani Oceanside Retreat was the idea of LJ Bates, who was then the executive director of the wellness retreat center, following Tropical Storm Iselle.

According to the council’s contingency records, then-Councilman Daniel Paleka donated $10,000 from his contingency fund to Kalani, a nonprofit organization, to help make the market happen in February 2015. Paleka didn’t return a request for comment Friday by deadline.

The contingency request form says the grant would “assist in the launch of a new market that will create 20 new jobs and provide essential groceries and bulk products to the community at large.” It was listed as a public rather than a private benefit.

Bates previously told the Tribune-Herald the market could help service the area during emergencies, as well as meet day-to-day shopping needs. The retreat is located near Kalapana Seaview Estates.

But the market idea proved too much and plans were changed, said Ali Slous, Kalani’s director of storytelling.

“It simply wasn’t feasible for us to launch a full-scale market within the time frame we were aiming for,” she said. “Basically, we decided to take a more measured approach.”

The market was to be located at the retreat’s Hale Aloha at its front entrance.

The new plans involved restoring the space, which was gutted for the planned market, and turning it back into a food and connectivity hub for the community with expanded food options, Sous said. While food is sold, it’s not a full grocery.

The contingency funds went through the county’s Department of Research and Development.

R&D Director Diane Ley, who joined the department in January, said the money was paid upfront and there was no record of how the funds were used at Kalani. She said she was planning to change the department’s rules to provide more documentation of how contingency funds are spent.

Ley said R&D entered into another $22,000 contract with Kalani in March 2016 to fund aspects of its food and community hub project. That didn’t use council contingency funds, she said.

Ley said the funds go toward distributing food boxes to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients in the area and providing a medical services unit in partnership with the Puna Community Medical Center.

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Former Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan donated $17,000 in contingency funds to Kalani in 2015 for programs. He said he didn’t contribute for the market because the building that was to be used was not permitted.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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