By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
On the heels of recent penny-pinching years that included budget cuts and property tax increases, Mayor Billy Kenoi is ready for the county to take on more debt.
Kenoi, in a letter Thursday, asked the County Council to authorize $61 million in new bonds for 23 projects islandwide. Finance Director Nancy Crawford, in a separate letter the same day, advised the council that the county’s fund balance, the accumulation of revenues minus expenditures, is at its highest level ever at $37.3 million as of June 30.
Kenoi said Friday that projects would be completed within three years of the council authorization. He cited the need to improve county facilities that have been neglected for many years and to provide new infrastructure in rapidly growing areas such as Puna.
“Now’s that time,” Kenoi said. “We’re committed to a very aggressive schedule. We’re not going to ask for authorization and create an expectation without getting it done in a timely fashion.”
Council Finance Committee Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter said she’s scheduled the bill for the authorization for the Dec. 3 committee meeting, which will be held at the West Hawaii Civic Center.
The largest amount of the requested bond authorization, $20 million, would go for a new park on county-owned property in Pahoa Village. The park would include three covered play courts, lit baseball fields for Pony League and high school play, two multipurpose fields, two playgrounds and restrooms.
Next highest is a $9 million upgrade for Old Kona Airport Park in Kailua-Kona. That would include removing parts of the old runway, creating a park road and new entrance and adding landscaping and parking. The county would also construct a cultural resource area at the north end of the park.
The first phase of a district park in Waimea would receive $2.5 million, as would the Honokaa rodeo arena. There’s $1.5 million to replace the clubhouse at Hilo Municipal Golf Course and $1 million for a park in Alii Kai subdivision in Kona.
Other projects include road extensions and repairs, new and renovated playgrounds, upgrades to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and repair for neglected parks facilities and money for sewer improvements and land purchases.
The bond request is Kenoi’s third since taking office in 2008, following a $56 million authorization for a variety of projects in 2011 and a $31 million authorization for a police radio system upgrade last year.
The $56 million bond authorization became somewhat controversial, after some members of the former County Council accused Kenoi of asking for the money in time to get new projects on the ground to bolster his re-election bid. The council delayed the authorization more than six months before approving it.
Council members were still digesting the new request Friday, but several were positive about the plan. They noted the projects would improve communities and create jobs, and said the county seems in a solid financial position.
“Looking at the projects on the list, I think they’re very worthwhile,” said Council Chairman J Yoshimoto, of Hilo. “We can always help our parks facilities — that’s where a lot of people spend time with their families.”
Poindexter, of Hamakua, said she supports the measure.
“We’ve reduced debt, so we have more capacity now,” she said. “I saw all the projects, and I’m supporting building healthy communities.”
One project on the list was one she had asked for, Poindexter said. The Honokaa rodeo arena has become a safety hazard she said, having personally witnessed a child fall through the bleachers at a recent event. Upgrades to make the arena ADA complaint are also needed, because, she said, “Everyone has the right to attend our parks and facilities.”
Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi said his initial impressions are favorable, but he wants to look more closely at some of the details behind some of the specific projects.
“Where it’s repairing our facilities that are in dire need, I’m for it,” Onishi said. “I’m glad the administration is bringing forward plans to get these facilities repaired.”
The county can shoulder the additional debt, Kenoi said. The bonds would raise annual debt service — the payments on the bonds — to 13.4 percent of total annual expenditures, below the 15 percent ceiling recommended by the Government Finance Officers Association.
Puna Councilman Zendo Kern said the list of projects appear to be well-rounded, distributed as they are around the island. He said the projects would create jobs and provide people with more opportunities.
“Looking at the metrics, I’m comfortable with it,” Kern said. “It’s about striking that balance.”
Kern said Puna, as the fastest-growing district in the state, and one that hasn’t had its share of improvements in the past, needs the extra attention it would get from the bond authorization.
The county in January received good reports from the three major credit reporting agencies when it put up for sale $97.2 million in previously authorized bonds. Almost $40 million of the proceeds were to be used to pay off higher-interest 2003 and 2004 bonds, $33 million would pay off bond anticipation notes already borrowed, $9.6 million would pay off state revolving loans and $24.7 million would go toward capital projects, according to one of the rating agencies.
The County Council, at Kenoi’s request, raised property taxes this year and in 2010.
Kenoi said conservative budgets have enabled the county to commit to more debt now, while the economy is rebounding but before construction costs rise. Interest rates remain low, he said, making it an attractive time to get the work done.
“It was very strategic. It’s a great opportunity,” Kenoi said. “These projects aren’t going to get any cheaper.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at email@example.com