Mayor defends decision to give workers paid day off


By NANCY COOK LAUER

Stephens Media Hawaii

The threat of Tropical Storm Flossie cost taxpayers more than $350,000 in lost worker productivity, and it inconvenienced residents when garbage transfer stations were closed and public bus service suspended, but Mayor Billy Kenoi on Monday afternoon maintained a “better safe than sorry” stance.

Kenoi put all “nonessential” county employees on paid administrative leave for Monday. The nonessential designation covers just about all 2,400 county employees except those in the Police Department and Fire Department and some wastewater workers.

Kenoi defended his decision to make the early call to shut down county services as the island faced the likelihood of the first direct hit from a tropical storm or hurricane in more than 20 years.

Kenoi said when he made the call Sunday afternoon to close services, Flossie was aimed directly at Hawaii Island with winds over 60 mph. The storm veered northward and began a weakening trend later Sunday evening, leaving some Hawaii Island residents on Monday posting skeptical comments on Facebook.

“It was absolutely the best decision to make,” Kenoi said Monday afternoon. “Our decision can’t be made in hindsight, but with the best information we had at the time. … We wanted people off the roads. We wanted people to stay home or in safe, secure areas.”

Early accounts of damages were limited to fallen trees forcing road closures in Puna and an electrical outage affecting some 5,000 residents in lower Puna and Ka‘u.

Kenoi said he wasn’t worried that residents, who have undergone several disaster warnings, government closings and evacuation orders in the past few years from tsunami threats, would get “disaster fatigue” and pay less attention to emergency warnings.

“I think people recognize that we are in the middle of the ocean and susceptible to a myriad of natural disasters,” Kenoi said. “We’ll always want to err on the side of the abundance of caution. … I think people understand that and appreciate it.”

United Public Workers and Hawaii Government Employees Association employees, who comprise the majority of non-emergency rank-and-file office and clerical staff, alone account for more than $350,000 per day in wages and salaries, according to a breakdown for daily rate calculated from savings during previous furlough days.

Kenoi said the day off is not likely to lead to extra overtime costs while the employees make up for their lost day of work.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie left it up to directors of the various state agencies to decide whether to close offices, and in Honolulu, which expects the tail-end of the ever-weakening storm, Mayor Kirk Caldwell sent workers home at 3 p.m. Monday.

State and county parks, state courts and harbors were also closed Monday, although airports were open. Some flights were canceled, however.

Unlike the government offices, it was business as usual Monday for area businesses, including KTA Super Stores, Big Island Toyota, Long’s Drugs, McDonald’s fast-food restaurants and Prince Kuhio Plaza in Hilo. All reported regular hours.

Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille said she was disappointed the county closures Monday forced the postponement today of a council committee’s decision-making session on a bill limiting genetically modified organisms in county agriculture. The controversial GMO issue was scheduled to be heard in Kona, but it was postponed to an as-yet unknown date because county employees couldn’t make the trip over to Kona to set up the meeting the day before.

“It’s unfortunate,” Wille said, “but I’m not going to give them a hard time that they canceled it.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

 

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