By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
Mayor Billy Kenoi is holding the line on travel. The Hawaii County Council, not so much.
Kenoi has continued to cut back on his county-paid travel since his early years in office, but he said visiting decision-makers in Honolulu and Washington, D.C., remains a priority.
The County Council, meanwhile, went 84 percent over its travel budget for the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to records provided by the Clerk’s Office. The council’s travel account ended the year at $49,831, some $22,751 more than the $27,080 budgeted. The budget includes off-island travel in addition to hotel stays and food when council members and staff travel across the island for meetings held in Hilo or Kona.
Cost overruns came about when five council members, rather than the typical one or two, attended the National Association of Counties convention in Washington, D.C., at an estimated cost of $3,000 per council member. Other charges were incurred by former County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi, who attended state Elections Commission meetings addressing the county’s difficulties in the 2012 primary election and the subsequent state takeover of the general election.
Council members and staff flying to Honolulu in conjunction with the state legislative session also racked up bills.
The new budget for the year that started July 1 raises how much can be spent for NACo and Hawaii State Association of Counties conferences from $24,600 to $45,000. In addition, the council recently voted unanimously to raise its travel and miscellaneous budget for the new fiscal year, giving each council member $8,500 in the district expense account, $2,750 more than last year’s account. The extra $24,750 is coming from the Pahoa district office, which is moving from a storefront to a county facility where no rent is required.
The council also raised its flat mileage rate from $300 a month to $500 a month, Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille said. Members also receive a $75 monthly cellphone allowance.
A Stephens Media Hawaii analysis of Kenoi’s travel records provided by the county shows he was off-island on county business 53 days in the 12 months ending May 1, compared to 66 days the year before and 56 days in 2010. In 2009, Kenoi’s first year in office, he was gone 94 days — more than 25 percent of the time.
Since taking office, Kenoi has spent $108,579 on taxpayer-paid travel, according to records.
“We’ve traveled and we’ll continue to do so when we have to,” Kenoi said. “We’ve tried to cut back in every area including travel, but when we have to go, we go.”
Kenoi said travel remains a priority as he advocates for county resources from state and federal government. This past legislative session, fighting for the county’s share of the transient accommodations tax and fighting off legislative attempts to cut into the county’s utility franchise tax required face-to-face visits, he said.
Collective bargaining took up less time this past year, resulting in fewer trips, he said.
Wille ended up having to reimburse the county for several hundred dollars for unauthorized trips to Honolulu, where she was testifying on bills relating to county government. One bill in particular, SB 727, was important because it would have stripped local control from counties in favor of the state, she said.
“After I had a hissy fit and said ‘You’re not going to do that to us,’ they canned it,” she said.
She had to pay for the trip herself because she couldn’t give Council Chairman J Yoshimoto the required two weeks’ notice because the issue came up suddenly, she said. Several other trips fell under similar circumstances, Wille said.
“I felt that the things that I did were important,” Wille said. “I was pretty upset.”
Yoshimoto said some of the reimbursements were required because Wille, as a new council member, misunderstood the process.
“When she first got on the council she didn’t understand she needed approval,” Yoshimoto said. “I’ve made mistakes, too. You just pay them back.”
All of Kenoi’s 29 trips this year except one were to Honolulu. In January, as he typically does, Kenoi attended the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. The nine-day trip, at a total cost of $4,206.84, included a $1,898.84 bill from the Capitol Hilton.
Attending Sen. Daniel Inouye’s funeral in December cost $1,142.59, including two nights at the Aston Executive Centre. Kenoi has also stayed at the Aston Waikiki Beach, Hilton Hawaiian Village and Ala Moana Hotel during trips to Honolulu.
And, unlike some years, there were no mayoral delegations to international destinations. Last year, the mayor and a 14-member delegation visited Hawaii County’s sister city in the Philippines, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $30,000. A 2010 trip to Japan to meet with Japan airlines officials on increasing flights to Hawaii Island was paid by the Big Island visitor’s Bureau.
“Every year, we welcome friends visiting from other countries,” Kenoi said. “We rely on our business community to represent us internationally.”
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.