County Council approves budget

The County Council on Wednesday added $1.6 million and two more positions to the 93 new positions in Mayor Harry Kim’s $583.9 million spending plan, while moving money around in other accounts to give the legislative body more oversight.

The budget passed 9-0 on final reading, despite concerns by Kohala Councilman Tim Richards, who worried about the extra burden the new employees would add to the county’s unfunded liability of retirement and post-retirement benefits. He estimated the county’s liability at close to $1 billion.

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“What gnaws at the back of my mind is the unfunded liabilities going forward,” Richards said. “When we start growing our rolls — it’s not about the payroll next year. It’s about the liabilities going forward.”

Richards, who has voted no on previous budgets, said he voted yes “in the spirit of compromise.”

Council members unanimously agreed to increase their contingency accounts to $100,000 each, bringing the fund to $900,000, compared to the mayor’s budgeted $270,000. That’s money each council member can give to nonprofits and county agencies at their discretion, with approval of the full council.

After that, choices became more difficult, as some council members tried to move money around to ensure more oversight, while others accused them of trying to micromanage the administration.

“It’s like telling my husband, ‘You wear the pants in the house, but I’m going to tell you what color,’” said Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter, a no vote on one of the amendments transferring money.

The largest transfer was Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy’s amendment to remove $8.3 million in overtime from various county departments and put it in a Finance Department account, where it will take County Council resolutions to spend it. That one passed unanimously.

“We’re demonstrating to our constituency and taxpayers that we’re watching the bottom line,” Lee Loy said.

The $8.3 million is about half of the approximately $16 million the county spent in overtime during the budget year ending June 31. Some overtime is required by contracts, and wasn’t affected.

“It increases transparency and accountability, and that’s what we want,” said Council Chairman Aaron Chung of Hilo, adding, “The administration will have to hone its managerial chops a little more” to keep on top of the cost of the workforce.

A plan by Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz to take $74,388 from one of 10 planned Puna police officers to create a legislative auditor position for a county whistle-blower hot line program was changed to take the money from the fund balance after it ran into opposition.

“I cannot in good conscious decrease salary and wages (for Puna police) no matter how you justify it, especially to create a position for a program that doesn’t exist,” said Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder.

Kierkiewicz said she talked with the police chief who told her he wouldn’t be able to immediately fill all 44 positions he’s being granted in one year.

The whistle-blower program was recommended by the county auditor because county employees and would-be employees told her they were afraid to speak up about problems in the county for fear of retribution.

“This is an opportunity to effect some positive change with the budget, to let them know if you have concerns we are going to have a safe harbor for you to report,” Kierkiewicz said.

Human Resources Director Bill Brilhante said Hawaii County is one of the few jurisdictions, if not the only one, in the state that doesn’t have the program, which is allowed under state law.

Poindexter said she’d be more supportive if the hot line was for employees only and not the general public. Otherwise, the line will be swamped, she said, with the public using it for gripes that can already be addressed by various county boards and commissions.

“We’re going to open up a can of worms and liability for the county,” she said.

It needs to be open to everybody, Brilhante said.

“If you’re going to say no more public, then no sense having it,” he said.

Kierkiewicz’s amendment to take $87,000 planned for a deputy director in the Information Technology Department in order to create one new clerk position each in Human Resources and the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office also ran into opposition.

Kierkiewicz found a compromise that cut the IT position to $47,000 for a contractor, added $40,000 for a contracted long-range IT plan and still added the two clerks.

At issue for several council members was the need to create an additional manager’s position to manage a 21-employee department that already has two managers, in addition to the director.

“We’re managing the managers?” Kierkiewicz asked. “Because they’re not capable of managing themselves?”

Chung had doubts as well.

“I think everyone is on the same page in terms of trying to improve our IT system,” He said. “(But) I’d rather see more workers than guys telling people how to work right now.”

Other council members said the position is needed to enhance the county’s often wonky computer system.

“In this day and age with cybersecurity and the threat of ID theft, the county has a responsibility,” said South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David.

An amendment unfunding four new positions for Mass Transit and putting the $220,224 in an equipment account in the same agency was supported less enthusiastically, passing 5-4.

Lee Loy said the positions will still be created and money will still be available for them, but moving it gives the agency an opportunity to look at other funding sources in addition to the general excise tax. The department also can use money from the fuel tax, federal grants and the general fund.

Transit Director Brenda Carreira said she’d prefer the account be left alone, but she’d live with the council’s decision.

“I didn’t want you to think I’m hogging the GET, but we’re in dire straits right now,” she said.

The county’s half-cent general excise tax is set to expire Dec. 31, 2030, and Lee Loy wondered where the money would come from after that.

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The new budget also includes $250,000 to re-institute the golf voucher program for participating West Hawaii courses.

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

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