Facing very little testimony from an apparently apathetic public, the Hawaii County Council made quick work Monday of an operating budget for the new fiscal year, unanimously passing the $416.9 million spending plan Mayor Billy Kenoi proposed to them.
The budget adds 10 new positions and increases a part-time employee to full time. It also includes raises for almost all county employees, union and nonunion alike. More than $20 million of the $22.6 million increase is targeted for employee raises and increases in benefits.
The budget goes into effect July 1 after almost-certain approval from Kenoi.
The spending plan is 5.7 percent higher than last year and is Kenoi’s first budget hike since taking office in 2008.
The additional revenue is coming from an extra $1.7 million in property taxes because of higher property values, an extra $1.86 million in the county’s share of the transient accommodations tax from the state, $770,000 more carried over from the previous budget year and other sources.
There are no hikes in property tax rates or fees in the proposed budget. But, after a 10.8 percent average tax rate hike in the previous fiscal year, property owners will also end up paying more taxes from higher assessments on their property.
The council, faced last year with the politically unpalatable option of raising property taxes, had pledged at the time to try to find a way to roll back taxes this year. That pledge was apparently forgotten.
“There was no rate increase, but the valuations went up so in reality the people are paying more taxes,” noted Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille.
Wille said she wanted the council to start earlier in the year to try to find additional revenues, so the county didn’t have to rely so much on property taxes.
The total value of net taxable real property, at $25.2 billion, is $1.7 billion more than last year, a 7 percent increase, according to the county Department of Finance.
The council added $52.1 million and 69 projects to Kenoi’s $116.3 million capital improvement budget, bringing the total to $168.4 million. The capital improvement budget is the county’s wish list for projects, and doesn’t necessarily mean they will be started right away. Money for those projects comes from bonds, grants, loans and fair share contributions by developers.
Four of the new positions go to the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney, including a new deputy prosecutor and three new clerks. The new positions are needed to handle changes in judiciary requirements, Kenoi said in his budget message.
The Ocean Safety Division of the Fire Department will get an extra $320,000 for four new water safety officer positions, and funding to start pilot personal watercraft programs in East and West Hawaii. The watercraft, often known by the Kawasaki brand name Jet Ski, will enable rescuers to get to swimmers in distress more quickly.
Other added positions are an information analyst for the Information Technology Department, and a new park caretaker and an increase to full time for a part-time caretaker for the Department of Parks and Recreation.
An extra $1.86 million bump in the county’s share of the extra transient accommodations tax went to bolster the county’s GASB 45 account for future health benefits for retirees. The TAT is a surcharge on hotel rooms and rentals of less than 180 consecutive days.
The $1.86 million brings the county’s payment into the GASB 45 account to $6.1 million, compared to $3.2 million last year.
Kenoi could not be reached Monday afternoon for comment, but he earlier praised the Finance Department and the council for helping put the plan together.
“(The Finance Department) put many, many months in putting together a sound budget,” Kenoi said. “I thank the County Council for going through the budget with the departments one-by-one.”
Council members seemed satisfied with their work as well. They praised the administration for creating a solid spending plan that didn’t need changes.
“I believe it’s a great budget,” said Puna Councilman Zendo Kern.
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