County seeks flexibility in using GET funds

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald file photo Lava crosses Leilani Avenue in June.

Hawaii County officials plan to ask lawmakers for more flexibility in how it can use its general excise tax surcharge.

The state Legislature previously gave counties the option of adding a half percent surcharge to the GET to fund transportation projects. The County Council approved a smaller one-quarter percent increase last June, with is set to take effect Jan. 1.

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Roy Takemoto, an executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim, said the county would like to be able to also use the revenue for other needs, including disaster response and recovery following the Kilauea eruption. Additionally, it wants clarity on whether it can pass another one-quarter percent increase by a March deadline, or if the county only had one shot at it under state law.

He said the GET issue will be raised as part of the county’s request to the Legislature for disaster recovery. That is also expected to include a funding request of about $150 million to address issues such as housing, road and other infrastructure repairs, and support for a redevelopment agency, among others.

“The county requests assistance to learn from past land use mistakes and reshape the future of Puna,” the draft request says. “This vision will require a partnership and resources of Federal, State, County, business, nonprofits, faith-based, and community stakeholders.”

The GET surcharge is expected to raise $10 million for the remainder of the 2018-19 fiscal year and $25 million a year after that before it expires Dec. 31, 2020.

The county has so far received $22 million from the state in disaster appropriations, including a $10 million transfer the council voted to accept this week.

Deanna Sako, county Finance Director, estimated at a council meeting this week that the county has spent about $8 million of the initial $12 million appropriation. About $5.4 million was for overtime costs, according to the county’s draft request to the Legislature.

The eruption began May 3 in Leilani Estates and destroyed more than 700 homes in lower Puna. Lava was last seen inside fissure 8 in early September, though flows had ended in August.

The destruction is expected to result in a decrease of property tax revenue for the county of about $4 million a year.

State Sen. Russell Ruderman said he and Rep. Joy San Buenaventura were meeting with a county official Friday to discuss what it plans to request from the Legislature.

Ruderman, D-Puna, has been critical of the county for not involving state lawmakers more in disaster response and the pace of recovery efforts, but said the delegation will fight hard for what the county seeks. He said he is optimistic the county will come away with some funding.

“People will pick at it,” Ruderman said, regarding the funding request. “I do think they will come away with some big chunk.”

He said he and San Buenaventura will propose additional legislation to address the need for a new boat ramp in Puna and land for a charter school that was destroyed, in addition to other issues related to the eruption. San Buenaventura couldn’t be reached for comment by deadline.

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As for the GET, Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara said she had written a resolution urging the Legislature to grant the county authority to increase the surcharge and expand its uses, but it wasn’t able to get placed on an agenda before the council term ends Dec. 3.

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

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