By CHELSEA JENSEN
The island’s three leading mayoral candidates butted heads during a Monday night forum, disagreeing on topics such as funding future health care costs for retirees, establishing open space at Ooma and handling the island’s trash situation, among others.
Mayor Billy Kenoi, in defending his administration’s deferral of payments for future health care costs for retirees, known as GASB 45, during the past two budget cycles, said the county pays its current post-retirement benefits as it goes and is not required to fund future costs.
“We pay for retirement and health care — it’s a pay as you go policy — it’s all paid up,” Kenoi, said before explaining the payments are based on a prediction of rising costs. “If possible, set aside money.”
Dominic Yagong disagreed, saying that in fiscal year 2012-13 a combined $34 million in GASB 45 payments will be deferred. He added that the benefits were a promise made by the county to employees for dedicating years of service.
“My father always told me, ‘Never leave the problem to the next man. You do what you can today even if it’s only a portion,’” Yagong said. “Making some kind of payment is something we should be doing as a government.”
Former Mayor Harry Kim, after commenting that the term sounded more like a military weapon, said under his administration, the first two years of GASB payments were made. He added he does not agree with Kenoi’s deferrals.
“It should be paid,” he said.
The event, held at Kealakehe High School, was sponsored by the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce, Hawaii Island Board of Realtors, the Kohala Coast Resort Association, Rotary of Kona, West Hawaii Today and the high school. The questions were determined by the sponsoring organizations and moderated by island radio personality Sherry Bracken.
Scores of people turned out for the two-hour moderated forum. The forum also featured three candidates seeking the county prosecuting attorney position.
Kim, 72, was mayor from 2000-2008. Billy Kenoi, 43, won election in 2008 and is seeking his second term as mayor. Yagong, 52, is currently chairman of the Hawaii County Council.
Two other candidates, Share Christie, a licensed cannabis sacrament minister, who is the wife of Roger Christie and a co-defendant in a federal marijuana/religious freedom case, and Daniel Cunningham, were given three minutes to speak to the audience.
Other candidates in the mayoral race but not present at the forum were Anne Marsh and Rand “Baker Tom” Walls.
As for the county possibly acquiring 300 acres now for sale at Ooma, which has been at the center of several unsuccessful and controversial development proposals, only Yagong provided a clear answer saying that he supports both development and open space, particularly the Ooma site.
Kenoi, while saying conservation land should be protected, said there is potential for commercial development fronting Queen Kaahumanu Highway. Kim said he’d like to see the coastline open for the people, but was sad the state Land Use Commission turned down a recent development that would benefit Kona and the island.
On the island’s opala, or trash, situation all agreed that rapidly filling dumps needs to stop and new technology has to be pursued in order to address the 532 tons of garbage generated by island residents daily.
“I firmly believe the worst thing we can do is continuing land-filling,” stated Kim.
Differing from Kenoi’s and Kim’s means for securing the technology, Yagong said the county needs to put the ball in its park by expanding its Hilo landfill in the short-term. Kenoi noted an expansion wouldn’t be feasible considering concerns over leachate and the proximity of Hilo International Airport.
“Having a landfill is essential to selecting a technology — it gives an option, and it doesn’t put your back against the wall,” Yagong said. “Having a landfill will give you that leverage.”
Other topics discussed during the mayoral portion of the forum included whether candidates would serve a full term; their priorities; community development plan adherence; vagrancy in downtown Kailua-Kona; equitable tax revenue spending; and expanding the island’s renewable energy resources.
All candidates for the prosecuting attorney position were present for their 30-minute portion of the forum including Lincoln Ashida, Mitch Roth and Paul Dolan. All pointed to their prior experience as qualification for the position.
Email Chelsea Jensen at email@example.com.