By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
The economy hasn’t always cooperated, nor has the County Council, but as he finishes his fifth year in office, Mayor Billy Kenoi sees more in his win column than he’s lost.
Kenoi, who first took office Dec. 1, 2008, and entered his second four-year term Dec. 5, 2012, likes to recount a laundry list of accomplishments. Property owners are paying less in taxes than they did five years ago. County government is smaller and cheaper than when he took office.
Major projects were completed, such as the $50 million West Hawaii Civic Center and the $30.5 million Ane Keohokalole Highway. Talk of splitting the Big Island into two counties quieted, as he’s brought the island closer together and tried to make services more equitable by spreading government to West Hawaii and hosting “Cabinet in your community” meetings around the island.
But challenges remain, and there’s little time remaining to overcome them.
“I’m very proud of what our team has accomplished. They truly have worked very hard,” Kenoi said in an interview Thursday. “But thankfully, we have three more years from now. I’ll continue to be demanding on our team. The reason, of course, is that we owe it to the people and the community.”
Most pressing on Kenoi’s plate is doing something about the county’s solid waste problems, as the Hilo landfill nears capacity and there’s very little council or public support to make the West Hawaii landfill at Puuanahulu the county’s only permitted landfill. Kenoi, in his campaign for re-election last year, vowed to have a waste-to-energy facility “on the ground” before he leaves office in 2016.
It’s a bold promise, and a year later, not much has been done. Still unknown are what kind of waste-to-energy facility, where it would be located, who would operate it and how much it will cost. In addition, a facility will require community and council buy-in, and many are already griping they’re being left out of the process.
Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille is so concerned she’s drafted a resolution pushing for Council inclusion and asking the administration to consider alternatives. The resolution is currently stalled in the Environmental Management Committee.
Kenoi has said Honolulu’s HPower plant is a good model for his county. HPower uses two refuse-derived-fuel-fired burners, but its newest burner is a mass-burn incinerator, which is cheaper to operate than the RDF-fueled ones.
Wille said she’s pushing for a big-picture approach. She said County Council, as the policy-making body of the county, should be involved early in the process, to give the public a voice and weigh in on a solution.
Kenoi said a request for proposals or request for information from vendors is set to be released sometime in the first quarter of 2014.
The solid waste issue is his biggest disappointment since taking office, Kenoi said.
Another source of frustration for Kenoi is the still-cumbersome processing of building permits. The county made improvements, some contractors said, but changes to the building code, coupled with a huge influx of permit applications for photovoltaic systems, disguised much of the progress made.
Kenoi touted the idea of an online system while outlining priorities during his December 2008 inauguration speech. That’s when he made the commitment to “implement a transparent tracking system and use information technology to ensure that county government efficiently and timely responds to the requests of our residents.”
His pledges to implement an electronic permit application and tracking system seemed fulfilled last year, but the system was suddenly taken offline last month after it bogged down and began giving error messages. When he learned about it just last week, Kenoi was not happy.
“This is the 21st century. We have to be digitally responsive. If things break down, my directive was pretty direct. Fix it and fix it now,” Kenoi said.
Michael Bonahan, owner of Kohala Creative Construction, said he really liked the online system because it would email him when a permit application moved from one department to another. Bonahan also praised the employees in the Building Division, especially those in the West Hawaii office.
Bonahan said he thinks a week or two has been trimmed from the permitting process compared to five years ago. He and Public Works Director Warren Lee noted it’s hard to make direct comparisons because a permit application takes longer when it is sent back to the architect or builder for corrections. At that point, the applicant decides how long it takes to get it back to the department.
“It’s my belief that the folks in the Building Department and especially those in West Hawaii have done an excellent job. They’re very responsive and hard-working and we’re lucky to have them,” Bonahan said.
The county’s Mass Transit system also remains a challenge. Kenoi pointed out Hawaii County’s system is by far the state’s largest in terms of miles. He defends the $2 fare ($1 for seniors, students and disabled), despite complaints from some riders the fares are too high.
“You can go 120 miles one-way for $2,” Kenoi said.
Almost 10 routes were added, 80 bus stops marked and 12 buses purchased, but riders complain about fares, buses breaking down and bus schedules inadequate to get to and from the airport, work or school. Some changes were made, but there’s still a need for earlier buses into Pohoiki so people don’t need to hitchhike into town to work, and later buses to other areas so people can work until 5 p.m.
Marty Mimmack, Mass Transportation Subcommittee chairman for the Puna Community Redevelopment Plan, said he’s seen some improvements, but the fast-growing Puna district needs a hub-and-spoke system to help riders get where they need to go. Many residents are low-income and don’t have cars to use at a park and ride lot if one were available, but they do want to go to work, he said.
In addition, said Mimmack, disabled people, especially those in wheelchairs, could definitely use access to the airports. Currently, they fly in and are stranded, he said, as few, if any, taxis can accommodate wheelchairs. Mimmack acknowledged accommodating wheelchair users is an “extremely low demand issue,” but he thinks it needs to be addressed.
“I have seen a lot of improvements, a lot of positive things,” Mimmack said. “Little by little … we’re moving along.”
But Tina Floyd, and several other members of the Facebook Hele-On Bus User’s Forum, claim there is still a lot to be done.
“Some routes have expanded, which is an improvement. But overall quality of the system has not substantially improved, from scheduling of routes, to clearly marked stops, to safety, to customer service after business hours, to the fact that drivers are contracted, rather than employed by the county and thus have zero benefits for their long hours, to a user-friendly website. (It’s) ridiculous you have to use a device that can download a PDF file to look at the bus schedule,” Floyd said.
Several riders complained about frequent mechanical breakdowns, especially on the Volcano, Pahoa and Keaukaha routes.
Kenoi agreed the county needs more than three mechanics, and said a baseyard on the west side of the island is also a priority. Currently, buses have to come back to Hilo for repairs. The county planned to add a mechanic and mechanic’s helper when it raised fares earlier this year. He said he’s also looking into whether bus drivers should be county employees rather than contract workers.
Kenoi’s 2008 campaign promise “People can choose to be either an employee of the county or a vendor of the county, but not both,” failed after the county Board of Ethics and the County Council bowed to pressure and refused to endorse it. Kenoi said Friday he will reintroduce the measure with the new council, perhaps as early as Monday.
Kenoi has said the ethics reform is not targeted at a single county employee as much as it is just good public policy.
But one county worker, Randy Riley, a Department of Public Works division chief, is owner of a company that since 1996 has had a contract for drywell pumping that pays up to $1.3 million annually. Riley is in charge of the county’s Automotive Division and had no input into how the request for bids was written by a colleague heading the Highway Maintenance Division, according to DPW Director Warren Lee.
A 2009 audit of Public Works says taxpayers would save even more if the entire operation were brought in-house. The audit, conducted by former Legislative Auditor Colleen Schrandt, says a new pumping truck could be purchased and two full-time employees assigned to do the work for about $500,000 a year. The 115-page report warned Public Works is ripe for misappropriation and malfeasance because of inadequate controls over its $27.5 million highway fund. The county ethics code allows county employees to contract with the county, as long as the contract is awarded by closed bid. The code forbids employees from using their position to secure advantages or contracts over others.
Parks and playgrounds remain one of the highlights of Kenoi’s term. He’s opened seven new playgrounds since taking office in 2008. About 20 parks have been renovated, begun or planned. The administration has yet, however, to catch up on the $80 million backlog in park maintenance projects. The Department of Parks and Recreation has been whittling away at it, and a new $61 million bond issue currently before County Council is expected to expedite several new community and regional parks.
Kenoi’s proudest moment, however, was when support from West Hawaii helped carry him over a nail-biter of a re-election campaign against his old boss, former Mayor Harry Kim. In 2008, West Hawaii residents were so disgruntled with what they saw as Hilo-centric government, they threatened to split off into their own county, taking their substantial property taxes with them.
A couple of fortuitous events — the completion of the $50 million West Hawaii Civic Center that was begun under Kim’s term, and a $30.5 million federal shot in the arm that enabled the start of the long-sought midlevel road, named Ane Keohokalole Highway — bolstered Kenoi’s popularity in West Hawaii. So did his decision to station half his cabinet in Kona.
“People were frustrated and wanted to be two counties. They spoke with a very loud voice,” Kenoi said. “We worked hard to bring our island together. People finally feel that they are being treated fairly.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at email@example.com.