By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
More than two hours of discussion wasn’t enough Wednesday for the County Council to decide whether council members could give nonprofits money from their district contingency funds.
The contingency fund, amounting to $98,877 per council member, was originally intended for council members to work with county departments to pay for projects that are needed but might have been overlooked in the annual budget. But nonprofits often asked council members for donations from it, leading Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi to sponsor Bill 90 to bar donations to nonprofits.
The county contributes $1.5 million annually to nonprofits through a separate competitive program that increases accountability, Onishi said. He said that fund could be increased next year if there is a need for more money. County code requires at least $1 million be allocated annually for nonprofits.
“There is an avenue for nonprofits to get grants,” Onishi said. “Because they don’t get that, then they’re going to come here.”
But council members, after posing a series of hypothetical situations to figure out what would be allowed under the bill, ultimately voted 6-3 to postpone the bill until they could understand it better.
“The only thing that is clear, is it’s not clear,” said Council Chairman J Yoshimoto, who voted for the postponement.
Spending from the contingency funds has to be approved by the department and also the County Council. Examples of projects from the contingency fund include volleyball nets, scoreboards, speed bumps and overtime for police for speed traps, Onishi said.
But some council members said the bill tries to micromanage their offices and limits their ability to help. Nonprofits provide services the county doesn’t, such as dental clinics and other health services under state jurisdiction, they said.
“We’ve been given a certain amount of money for our district to help the people in our district,” said South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford. “This bill prevents me from helping the most needy in my district.”
Other council members worried about a lack of oversight.
“I am looking for a proper protocol for accountability,” said Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan. “We already have the nonprofit funding process. … I want to make sure it is all accounted for.”
But Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill, said the council provides the oversight and accountability because the entire council has to vote on each member’s proposed use of the funds.
“Do we tie our hands and do we feel better having our hands tied,” Wille said, “so we don’t have to make those hard decisions?”
The contingency funds were once a part of the council budget but were eliminated four years ago because of the down economy and also in part because of how the money was used.
Each council member used to get $300,000, but Mayor Billy Kenoi this year proposed $100,000 per council member. The council, in amending the budget, reduced that amount when it allocated $10,100 from the total to ensure the Ocean View council videoconferencing site could remain open.
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