Editor’s note: This is one in a series of articles examining contested Big Island primary election races.
By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Left, right or straight ahead?
In this election, Big Island voters will decide which direction Hawaii County will take over the next four years.
With the primary election near, three candidates have emerged in the front of the pack, each offering three distinct choices.
There’s Billy Kenoi, the energetic and gregarious incumbent who touts maintaining services during tough economic times as one of his successes; Harry Kim, the easy-going former two-term mayor with an affinity for good, responsive government; and Dominic Yagong, the Hawaii County Council chairman and top critic of the administration.
All have their share of qualifying experience. But what would the next four years be like with them in charge?
First, the man currently holding the title.
Kenoi, 43, is a former attorney who served as one of Kim’s executive assistants.He defeated Angel Pilago, now the council’s vice chairman, in the 2008 mayoral race.
After taking office during an economic recession, he uses his tenure as evidence he can govern the county during the worst of times.
Frequently noted by him in the campaign is the collection of fewer taxes. Property tax revenue, the county’s main funding source, is down 3.6 percent over last year and has been largely in decline since 2008. But this is due to a drop in property values rather than a conscious effort on the part of local government. Still, Kenoi said the county has made a decision not to raise tax rates to make up the loss, at least since 2010 when property taxes went up for several property classifications.
“Our accomplishment is we didn’t raise taxes because we collected less than we did at the time,” he said of the last few years. “But we protected services. That’s the accomplishment.”
The administration has balanced the budget, currently at $365 million, by not filling vacant positions, employee furlough days, and delaying $34 million in payments to a retiree benefits account over the last two years.
“To cut 200 (positions) is significant,” he said. “That’s never been done before.”
The county currently has 2,632 employees.
The budget was $408 million in 2008.
But what about the next few years?
Kenoi is optimistic that the county has seen the worst of the downturn and believes the local economy is on a steady recovery.
“We’re hopeful that because of our strategic decision making over the last four years, that we’ve put the county in a position to really take advantage of the economic recovery that we know will come,” he said.
If the economy doesn’t improve?
“Then we got to make difficult decisions, but we will continue to maintain core critical government services,” Kenoi said. “We’ve done that through the four toughest years in history of the county and we’re confident we will continue to do so in the future.”
Needless to say, the other candidates don’t share that point of view.
But none have done more to make a point out of it than Yagong, who has made his self-described fiscal conservative approach a pillar of his campaign.
The 52-year-old council chairman who has represented the Hamakua Coast for 12 of the last 16 years, said the administration is avoiding making tough decisions to further bring expenses under control and pledges to bring a business perspective to running county government.
Yagong was the district manager for Food Pantry until March 5. He said he resigned to focus on the campaign.
Yagong has also tried to highlight his differences with Kenoi by opposing the deferral of payments into an employee retirement account, known as GASB 45, a bill he introduced that would require the county to cover at least 50 percent of the annual payment passed but was vetoed by Kenoi.
Yagong said the county is deferring its responsibility and he believes the county can reduce expenses elsewhere to cover it without raising taxes.
“Deferring our expenses is not a balanced budget and more importantly it’s not the way to go,” he said.
Kenoi has taken issue with that characterization and said the county is not shortchanging retired employees.
He said the account is meant to cover future increases in health care costs.
“It’s an optional payment,” Kenoi said. “Everybody is taken care of.”
In 2010, Yagong proposed deferring $5 million in retirement benefits.
He said he made the proposal to offset proposed tax increases, adding he thought it was a better alternative.
“We wanted to make sure we don’t go to raising taxes until we reduce expenses,” Yagong said.
Covering 50 percent of the payment would have added $7 million to the county’s budget this year.
Yagong said he could come up with that money by ending budgetary “padding” within departments and by eliminating at least some deputy director positions.
“I would definitely take a look at eliminating these management positions,” he said.
Yagong said he thinks some are unnecessary, and eliminating them would help protect other jobs in the county.
He said he would also reduce the size of the county’s vehicle fleet.
Additionally, Yagong said he would look for “public/private” solutions, such as privatizing the county’s recycling sort facility.
Kim, 72, said he is ready for another shot at the mayor’s seat.
He served for two terms (2000-2008) and was the county’s civil service director for 24 years.
Kim said he chose to run again because he sees a high amount of dissatisfaction with local government.
“People feel … very dissatisfied with how we work in government in regard to what we do and how we do it,” he said, adding that residents are “sick and tired of bickering.”
Kim said he was also frustrated by the state’s decision to eliminate geothermal subzones through Act 97, a move intended to help streamline geothermal development.
“I feel that Act 97 has to be repealed,” he said. “And I will work on that.”
Kim has been criticized during his campaign for adding several hundred employees during his tenure.
He defended the additions as being needed to make up for years of delayed hirings with the police and fire departments, and being caused by legal mandates.
“I would have done it sooner if I could,” Kim said, referring to the new police and fire positions.
He called public safety his No. 1 priority and didn’t rule out a tax increase if needed to address underserved communities.
On GASB, Kim called it “our liability” and that it should be included in the budget.
“I would make all attempts to see how this can be negotiated to be paid either in whole or in part …,” he said.
Kim also said that he considers geothermal power to be a “great resource” but he added “we got to do it right.”
That means making sure it doesn’t impact nearby residents, he said.
Kim approved the last expansion at Puna Geothermal Venture and also organized the emergency response to the 1991 blowout.
Both Kenoi and Yagong see geothermal as part of the island’s energy portfolio, though the chairman has certainly done more to make it a campaign issue.
Yagong this year has introduced two bills aimed at resolving concerns by some of PGV’s neighbors by directing royalty money toward new health studies, additional monitoring, and creating an emergency response plan that would inform residents of how to evacuate.
Kenoi vetoed those two bill as well, noting that the county has emergency response measures in place and concern over provisions in the legislation that prevents the county from reselling homes acquired through its geothermal relocation program.
The mayor said he has made inquiries with experts at the University of Hawaii regarding a new health study, though he couldn’t say when or if that may happen.
“If geothermal has an adverse impact then we should have that documentation and information,” Kenoi said.
“We welcome anybody to come in,” he added. “We welcome anybody to study it.”
The three main contenders have similar approaches to handling the county’s growing waste problem.
The Hilo landfill has about eight years of capacity left and the county essentially has three options: truck more garbage to the west side, expand the Hilo landfill, or find some use for the garbage, possibly through a waste-to-energy incinerator.
Kenoi said he favors a waste-to-energy project, though his administration hasn’t committed to it.
Kim is about on the same page. He said he’d bring back a proposal for a $125.5 million waste-to-energy project, or something like it. The council shot down that proposal in 2008 due to its cost.
“I will never support more landfills here,” Kim said.
Yagong said he is open to waste reduction solutions, such as an incinerator, but stresses it should be handled by private sector with the county receiving some revenue.
“We can’t continue to grow government and that’s the key,” he said.
A recent study by the county Department of Environmental Management found trash hauling to be the cheapest solution.
The study showed it would cost an average of $52 to $72 per ton to haul all the county’s garbage to the Puuanahulu landfill in West Hawaii. A new Hilo landfill would cost $92 to $110 a ton. A waste-to-energy facility would be between $80 to $210 a ton.
The other candidates are Share Christie, Daniel Cunningham, Anne Marsh and Rand “Baker Tom” Walls.
The primary election is Aug. 11.
The top two candidates will face off in the Nov. 6 general election.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.