Hawaii County Council members tapped their district contingency funds for $525,354 during the last 10 months, with a majority of expenditures going to park facilities.
The fund, re-established this fiscal year after a four-year hiatus, gives each of the nine council members $98,877 for expenses in their districts not covered by the budget.
More than half of the used funds were granted to the county Department of Parks and Recreation for a variety of expenses, including scoreboards, tobacco-free signs, facility chairs and tables, and a prisoner of war memorial at the West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery.
Parks and Recreation received $314,016 from the funds as of April 16. The Fire Department received the second-highest allocation so far, with $68,200.
Each expenditure requires council approval.
Critics in the past called the “contingency relief” funds a slush fund that can be used to bolster re-election chances. Council members interviewed said they found it a useful way to meet needs of constituents.
“I thought it has had a good positive impact because we were allowed that flexibility,” said Council Chair J Yoshimoto of Hilo.
“What I really like about it … is that we know what maybe was needed in our district that wasn’t in the budget,” said council Vice Chair Karen Eoff. “We get to fill that need.”
One of Eoff’s expenditures was $15,000 for the cemetery memorial.
The money, transferred through the parks department, went to a group raising funds for the project.
While most of the expenditures are relatively small, Parks and Recreation Director Clayton Honma said it’s difficult for the department to cover them without help from the council members.
“Over the last four years, the budget has been so tight we haven’t been able to replace equipment,” he said. “We don’t have an open checkbook to purchase all that we need out there.”
The largest single expenditure was $31,000 from Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi’s contingency fund for parks maintenance equipment.
Combined, council members have $364,546 remaining to spend before the new fiscal year begins July 1. Funds not used go back into the general fund, Yoshimoto said.
Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille hasn’t used her district’s contingency money yet, but she plans to change that.
Wille said she will submit funding requests for the next meeting, May 1, including $35,000 for a North Kohala Skate Park.
“I sort of wanted to get mine pulled together at the same time and see if certain things were available or not,” she said.
With the next budget just around the corner, time is running short for council members to submit their requests.
“In order for everything to be processed, it’s usually early May,” Yoshimoto said, referring to internal deadlines. “We have to expend it every fiscal year.
“Which is why you see more (requests) toward the end of the year. It cannot carry over.”
Mayor Billy Kenoi is proposing $90,000 in contingency funds for each council district in the 2014-15 budget.
In previous years, that amount reached $300,000.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.