By NANCY COOK LAUER
Community development plans, geothermal energy and the economy took center stage Friday when Mayor Billy Kenoi and former Mayor Harry Kim faced off at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
Both candidates for the county’s top job pledged to support expanding geothermal energy but also promised close monitoring to protect the the safety of nearby residents.
Kenoi called the current controversy “the politics of fear.”
“There is certainly a response in place,” Kenoi said, of evacuation plans should something go wrong.
Kim, who was the county Civil Defense administrator before he became mayor, agreed there are evacuation plans in Puna. But he wants to ensure that a new geothermal plant planned for West Hawaii is built to the highest standards. The state’s efforts to take away home rule from the county over energy development was one of the main reasons he’s seeking another term, Kim said.
“Make sure you do it right to protect the people,” Kim said.
The candidates sparred over one of Kim’s pet projects from his days as mayor: community development plans.
Kim said Kenoi’s administration wasn’t taking the county’s community development plans seriously. Kim had started the CDP process, saying Hawaii one was one of the few states in the country where there is no level of government below counties or municipalities.
“We’re honoring the community development plan not by talking about more plans but by implementing the programs,” Kenoi responded.
Kim countered Kenoi’s statement, saying the community development plans predate Kenoi’s administration.
“Every single plan Mayor Kenoi mentioned in Kona was conceived by the community (prior to Kenoi’s tenure),” Kim said.
Kim also differed with Kenoi on two public employee issues, the deferral over the past two years of $34 million in advance payments on future retiree benefits, known as GASB 45 , and unpaid furloughs of county employees. Employees were first furloughed twice monthly, and are now furloughed monthly.
“I do feel very strongly that furloughs should be abolished,” Kim said.
Kim said GASB would have a higher priority in his administration.
“Someday there’s going to be real trouble because they failed to do it,” Kim said.
Kenoi disagreed employee retiree benefits are being neglected. He said $27 million is directed in the current $365 million county budget to employee health care and $22 million to other retiree benefits. In addition, there’s $61 million already set aside in the GASB account, he said.
“All of our payments have been made,” Kenoi said. “There is no shortfall.”
On other topics, Kenoi touted his recent success stimulating the tourism sector and his work bringing international flights back to Kona, after the loss of Japan Air Lines earlier in his tenure. He said there are 8 percent more visitors this year than this time last year, spending 16 percent more. Visitors have spent more than $1 billion in the county already this year, he said.
Kim said he’d push to ensure the county keeps its share of the transient accommodations tax.
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