Big Island Now Mayoral Candidate Forum Q & A
1. Public Funds:
What concrete steps would you take as mayor to ensure that future administrations, including your own, do not violate ethics rules pertaining to use of public funds?
The policies in effect are quite adequate to ensure that public funds are used according to law. Concrete steps to be taken include: never violate ethics rules by ensuring that all appointees and employees are trained to know the rules; establish an accountable system to monitor receipts and expenditures; and promote and ensure that all records are made available on request.
2. Transparent Spending:
What would you do to increase transparency of administration spending, so that the public can readily see how their dollars are being used by their chief executive?
The best way is to establish an atmosphere that encourages availability of information, especially to the media. The media is the public’s watch dog. A system can be developed to make scheduled and easily accessible spending information to all.
3. Building Permit Process:
Contractors and homeowners are reporting wait times of three to six months for building permits. With construction forming such a large component of our economy, what solutions would you promote to streamline the permit process and what sources of funding would be used?
We need to understand that the basic purpose of the building permit system is public safety, and that any streamlining does not compromise the safety of the ultimate users over profit or convenience. This is an issue that needs continuous attention and help by the private sector working together with the government regulators. This has been an ongoing problem that gets worse as codes change and construction heats up. We need to evaluate what has been tried by past administrations to not reinvent the wheel or repeat past failures. We need to talk with contractors, consultants, and plan reviewers to identify and understand the bottlenecks. We need to research and talk with other jurisdictions to see what has worked elsewhere. It could be as simple as clear checklists for consistent reviews and sorting systems to fast-track “easier” projects, or more complicated systems employing sophisticated technology. We would test promising ideas, to refine by doing and not endless brainstorming. It would be premature to discuss funding until the solutions are determined. But the emphasis would be to improve the workflow efficiency rather than to add more employees. If expensive technology needs to be purchased, this could be included in the capital budget to pay by bonds and spread the repayment over time since this would have a long-term benefit.
4. Thirty Meter Telescope:
Do you feel the construction of the TMT will be a net positive or net negative for the Big Island community and explain your reasoning.
The TMT project can be a net positive for Hawai‘i and the universal community. This stems from the continuous quest for knowledge and with that knowledge, make this a better place and better people. The problem of where we are on the TMT project is not of just Mauna Kea, but how we have generally developed this very special place. Issues of culture, of nature, of sensitivity to people and lifestyle, had been so disrespected and disregarded. We need not look far for many examples of this. The Kohanaiki development in Kona is an example of people, who had been in conflict for many years, coming together. The main factor in achieving this was their true will to resolve the issue. “Do not look at Mauna Kea as just a place of science. To others, past and present, it is part of their soul,” I had advised the UH when they first considered development of Mauna Kea. I do believe that the TMT project can be a net positive for the people of this world. This project can be a symbol of countries– China, India, USA, Canada, and Japan– working together in a very special place in this quest for knowledge. This project can also be such a beautiful star of hope for resolving differences based on a true partnership of people. What better place than Hawai‘i, the home of warmth and aloha, to be the model for the world. This I believe can be done, but only if we have the desire.
List actionable steps that can be taken to help resolve the island-wide homeless crisis, and include funding sources for your solutions.
The homeless crisis is the end result of Hawai‘i developing an economic situation that places so many in a constant struggle of basic survival. The growing number of homeless is frightening; even more frightening is the population at risk of becoming homeless as they live paycheck to paycheck to meet expenses with very little hope for the American Dream. Actionable steps include:
- Create one-stop friendly places to service those who seek help. Such a place has been created in Kona. We need a similar place in Hilo and other areas where the homeless congregate. The Kona facility was built with assistance from the private sector. We should seek such partnerships for future facilities to involve and recognize community-wide participation to resolve this issue.
- Create transition homes and support programs for families with children. As much as possible, we need to provide transitional shelter opportunities for families as a special group of the homeless population. We would need to partner with nonprofits and faith organizations to build and operate such facilities.
- Create central sanitary and comfortable shelter places for those who remain to stay on the street. We need to coordinate with the State who may have land and/or funding initiatives that apply to this segment of the homeless population.
- Create affordable rentals for the hidden, at-risk homeless. We need innovative nonprofit developers to assist in developing rental projects that are affordable to the lower income groups. This requires the County to actively seek out such developers and coordinate where needed.
- The long-term solution is to raise the level of skills through our education system, to diversify employment opportunities, to recognize employers who care about their employees, and to diversify housing choices.
6. Tax Revenues:
An increase in the G.E. tax was proposed by the current mayor. Where do you stand on introducing new tax revenue sources during the next administration? If you plan on targeting the state’s share of the Transient Accommodations Tax, how would you realistically increase our county’s share of that revenue source?
The G.E. tax is the worse tax system in the U.S. This is a regressive tax that should be changed in the long term, not increased. A regressive tax takes a larger percentage of income from low-income earners than from high-income earners. The immediate strategy should not be to seek new tax revenue sources, rather to reduce the “direct tax rate” imposed on Hawai‘i’s people. A direct tax, such as property taxes, is one that cannot be passed on such as the G.E. tax that is passed on from the seller to the consumer. One means to reduce the direct tax burden is to receive a larger share of the TAT tax revenues. The counties’ share should be based on a formula that considers the counties’ role in the visitor’s experience. Without a formula, the counties must beg each year. The formula should be based on a study requested by the State Legislature but not followed. Besides lobbying together, the counties should take the findings of that report, translate the impact of not receiving their due share of the TAT and the impact on what the property tax or improved programs could have been with a fair share of the TAT revenues, and use that information to rally the support of constituents.
7.Services and Spending:
How do you feel about our current level of services vs. spending? If we were to face a funding shortfall during the next administration, would you raise taxes or cut programs, and if so, what/how?
These are some principles that I would follow in setting budgets and tax rates that try to anticipate financial situations and avoid year to year reactionary responses:
- Try to determine an optimum level of service. We would try to do this based on objective standards to the extent reasonable. For example, how large should the police force be? Perhaps we could develop an acceptable standard based on the number of officers per 1000 persons. But developing those standards may not be simple. For example, if we based the adequate number of police officers only on population, large sparsely populated areas of our island such as Ka’u would not have the number of officers to respond within an acceptable response time. The standards should also give more weight to public health and safety, and other critical needs.
- In good times, maintain and not increase the optimum level of service and allocate any “surplus” to Rainy Day funds, disaster emergency funds, or retirement obligations. Reduce tax rates if projections forecast surpluses in upcoming years. When times are bad, the Rainy Day fund would enable maintaining the optimum level of service without increasing taxes.
- Control fixed expenses. Control salaries by establishing an optimum employment size. Control utility and vehicular costs through renewable energy source investments. Control debt by limiting bond funding to prudent percentages of conservative revenue projections.
- Acknowledging the limited debt funding capacity, carefully prioritize capital projects with input from the community.
- Encourage development in the right places. Viable communities can increase property values. Higher tax values generate more revenue without increasing tax rates.
- Control the burden on homeowners. As property values increase, the previous administration established a cap on the tax increase to spread the impact over time for situations where the values dramatically increase.
- Determine fair tax burdens. Close loop holes that may exist. For example, if agricultural incentives are being abused, there should be reform. The additional revenues generated by closing loop holes avoid the need to raise tax rates on others.
8. Nextera Merger:
What are your thoughts on the proposed NextEra merger with Hawaii Electric Company (HECO)? Do you support efforts to halt that process in favor of a public-owned (Co-op) utility model?
As it is now known, this is a mute question as the PUC wisely rejected the merger. My support would be to organize a knowledgeable working group with only one mission: to review and recommend the best alternative to meet the long-term power needs of this State.
How can the county government help to resolve this pervasive problem?
This is a problem faced by most rural communities across the nation. The County government must be involved in all aspects of this problem. The County can take a leadership role to bring people together, encourage innovative solutions, and find resources. The residency program is an example of how the community was very instrumental in saving this program for Hawai‘i Island.
The Hilo landfill is at or approaching safe capacity levels and could face closure during the next administration if changes are not made. Various solutions have been proposed, including re-routing waste to West Hawaii and the construction of a waste-to-energy plant. What direction would pursue as mayor?
The County administration is required to follow the “Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan.” The current plan in effect committed the County to a policy of “zero waste” and encourage actions towards reducing, reusing, and recycling. This 2009 plan was to be updated every five years, but State law changed the requirement to 10 years. Updating the plan should be a high priority of the next administration. This update should consist of appointing a citizens committee with diverse interests, and providing them with the best information and expertise to establish the most appropriate and sustainable action plan for our County.