State law change may be needed for redevelopment agency

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Sgt. Gavin Ching of the Hawaii National Guard tests the gas levels on Kahukai Street on May 30 in Leilani Estates.

Before Hawaii County creates a redevelopment agency to guide eruption recovery in Puna, it may need some help from the state Legislature.

Roy Takemoto, executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim, said state law may only allow counties to have one such agency at a time. The county already has one for the Banyan Drive hotel area, which has suffered from lack of funding.

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Takemoto said an amendment to state law would likely be part of a special session of the Legislature, if one is called.

He said there is still a window for holding the session for eruption recovery, which lawmakers have said needs to be done before the November general election, if not much sooner.

Takemoto and Diane Ley, county Research and Development director, met with legislative leaders in Honolulu on Wednesday.

“They gave us some things that we need to redo,” said Takemoto on Friday after a meeting of a working group addressing housing needs of evacuees, which gathers bi-weekly in Hilo. “We are going to redo the numbers. That’s part of why we’re meeting today. And then circle back within a week or two.”

As for a potential timeline for a special session, he said Senate leaders are looking to possibly hold one in mid or late October and address both eruption and hurricane-related aid. If that doesn’t happen, the county will have to wait until the next regular session starts in January to seek more money.

The county says it may need as much as $800 million to recover from the eruption, which is paused but may not be over. That would go toward housing, infrastructure, other types of community development, assistance for displaced farmers, and potentially buying land covered by lava.

Takemoto said the hope is that 80 percent of that would be covered by the federal government.

He said the county would seek $17.4 million from the Legislature during a special session to get it through the fiscal year, but he noted that number may be reduced after recent meetings with legislators. That would be on top of the $12 million the state provided so far.

Short-term funding priorities include sustaining the emergency response, a Highway 11 bypass, if one is still needed, and restoring Pahoa Regional Park, the site of a evacuation shelter, which will close Sept. 17, Takemoto said.

“We have to go down one by one all the items that we had, that we thought we needed by the end of the fiscal year to see if there’s a way to delay or phase,” he said.

As for the $800 million request, Takemoto said that’s based on “big assumptions” at this point. That could be split up into three phases: immediate needs, what the state can reasonably fund without money from the federal government, and whatever federal government can do to help. He referred to the latter as the “what we’d like to have” assuming the dollars come through.

The deadline to apply with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for individual assistance is Wednesday.

So far, 2,857 households have registered with FEMA, which has approved $8.6 million in grants. The U.S. Small Business Administration has approved more than $30 million in loans to homeowners and businesses.

Mary Kucenski, a voluntary agency liaison with FEMA, said at the Friday meeting that the agency is looking at next phases of disaster recovery, and has identified about 500 households that could qualify for direct lease assistance or plane tickets to the mainland.

Those programs could take another month to launch, she said.

In addition to FEMA and the county, also attending the meeting were representatives of nonprofits and private businesses, such as HPM Building Supply, that have assisted with recovery and housing.

Topics discussed at the meeting included getting package homes pre-approved at the county to make it easier for people who were displaced to get a permit and rebuild, and hosting of a fair or workshop on housing.

There was also discussion of providing property tax incentives for property owners to house displaced people, expanding Section 8 assistance, as well as making it easier for accessory dwellings to be built to increase housing inventory.

Darryl Oliveira, HPM safety manager and former county Civil Defense director and fire chief, noted housing was already an issue before the eruption, and the hope is that these ideas could help solve the bigger picture of housing and homelessness.

Takemoto mentioned a “group site” for shelters that could last up to 18 months with funding help from FEMA.

Two transitional shelters have been built by nonprofit agencies and church groups in Pahoa and Hawaiian Paradise Park, with 30 microunits in total.

The latter is scheduled to open Sept. 29.

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It was estimated that 45 people remain in the county shelters who were identified as having a “chronic history of homelessness.”

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

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