County’s overtime costs mount during emergency

  • NANCY COOK LAUER/West Hawaii Today Managing Director Wil Okabe hosts a press conference Tuesday afternoon in Hilo.

It’s all hands on deck during a lava emergency, and there’s plenty of overtime, too.

Overtime is just one of the costs associated with the current volcano crisis, with county staff from all departments pitching in to help the Civil Defense Agency handle hundreds of phone calls from concerned residents as well as juggle media inquiries, conduct press conferences and churn out myriad Civil Defense radio messages and press releases.


Then there are road crews, police officers, firefighters, facilities managers, parks workers and everyone else who can be called in to lend a hand.

“People are working 12-hour days,” said Managing Director Wil Okabe on Tuesday, allowing a thread of exhaustion to weave through his normally ebullient speaking voice.

Okabe said staff also are volunteering time to pitch in during the crisis.

Mayor Harry Kim, who is recovering from an April 26 heart attack, is still logging the hours as well, although he reduced them somewhat, Okabe said.

The emergency costs might blast through the county’s carefully crafted budget, but it’s really too early to say, said Finance Director Deanna Sako. The County Council is scheduled to take up the 2018-19 budget Tuesday.

The $518 million spending plan relies on increases in property values, landfill tipping fees and housing grants to reach its new historic level, a 5.5 percent increase from last year. No property tax increases are planned this year, but the fuel tax will ratchet up by an additional 4 cents.

The budget, for the fiscal year that starts July 1, can be amended at any time by the mayor — with council approval.

Overtime costs alone added more than $700,000 during the much smaller 2014 Pahoa lava emergency, with 75 percent of that reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We have instructed departments to track their time for federal reporting and reimbursement purposes,” Sako said.

Because of the payroll cycles, initial overtime figures won’t be available until the end of the month, Sako said. Depending on how long the emergency lasts, expenses of all types could continue piling up.

The county borrowed $20 million in bonds to help with construction costs during the 2014 lava crisis.

The county has a $6 million emergency fund set aside for just such events, but Sako said the county doesn’t want to deplete it because more emergencies are possible after the current crisis is finished.

The FEMA reimbursements are welcome, but they don’t happen right away, Sako said. Plus, in a tight budget and major crisis, even 25 percent of costs can be hard to cover.


“It’s something we’ll be talking to the County Council about next week,” Sako said. “We know it’s going to have an impact.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.