By NANCY COOK LAUER
Improving the county’s technology to make government more efficient topped the list of priorities for two County Council members interviewed Wednesday as they tackle another tight budget year.
Both South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford and Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi say government functions would be more secure, and millions could be saved, if the county brought its information technology up to date. Both council members want redundant computer servers, including one probably located in Kona, so the entire government doesn’t shut down when the sole server shuts down.
Ford, in particular, is pushing for asset management software that would pinpoint which of the county’s many facilities needed preventative maintenance before it escalated to costly repairs. She also wants more money for the Department of Environmental Management and the county prosecutor to restore unfunded positions.
“I think it’s time that we started applying the money very strategically,” Ford said.
Ford is willing to dip into the county’s fund balance, the estimated $16 million to $18 million left over from the prior year, to make changes she says will save money in the long run. Onishi also wants to beef up information technology, but he doesn’t think the fund balance, considered the county’s rainy day fund, should be used.
“I don’t think there will be enough money in the fund balance,” Onishi said.
The county Information Technology Department is slated to get $1.6 million next year, the same amount as it had this budget year.
Ford and Onishi have been meeting with department heads and the Finance Department this week.
The council, meeting as the Finance Committee, has scheduled hearings April 10-12 in Hilo for department-by-department scrutiny of budget line items. The council plans an April 16 public hearing at the West Hawaii Civic Center in Kona to get community input.
Mayor Billy Kenoi has proposed a $370.8 million no-new-taxes budget that ends monthly employee furloughs while holding the line on departmental spending. The budget is $5.7 million, or 1.5 percent, higher than the current year’s spending plan that expires June 30. The bulk of the increase, $4.2 million, is for employee salaries for the extra 12 days due to the end of furloughs.
The increase is expected to be funded by an increase in property values, adding more to the tax base. Real property tax revenues, by far the largest revenue source for county government, are expected to increase by 1.2 percent, or $2.4 million, to $200.6 million due to an estimated 1 percent rise in taxable values and a slight increase in interest payments.
Kenoi will submit an amended budget in early May based on final property tax figures, and the council plans to amend, debate and vote on the budget by the end of May. The spending plan goes into effect July 1.
Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha said he would wait to discuss specific adjustments after he hears the department’s budget explanations.
“We all know we are not going to be able to do a lot of things we want to do,” Kanuha said. “We’re going to look over the budget with a fine-toothed comb.”
North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff said she’s been concentrating her efforts on divvying up $1.5 million in grant money for local nonprofits. That’s entailed hours of presentations from nonprofits as her subcommittee winnowed through 116 separate programs seeking more than $4 million. The recommendations will come in the form of a budget amendment to be submitted April 16.
“I was very happy to see the mayor put $1.5 million in the budget,” Eoff said. “By law, he was only required to put $1 million. Still, it’s hard to cut them down.”
Eoff, as well as Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, also want to concentrate on the revenue side of the budget. Still unknown is what the state Legislature plans to do with the county’s share of the transient accommodations tax and franchise taxes.
Wille said additional revenue sources should also be explored. She has a communication on Monday’s Governmental Relations and Economic Development Committee agenda to discuss the possibility of convincing the state to allow a form of gambling — high-stakes bingo — in Hawaii County. The council committees meet Monday and the council meets Tuesday in Hilo.
Other council members did not return calls by press time Wednesday.
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at email@example.com.