By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Hawaii County has spent $646,407 purchasing homes near Puna’s geothermal power plant, but that number could soon be about to rise.
Joaquin Gamiao, planning administrative officer, said the department is processing seven relocation requests that could end up increasing that amount by about 55 percent.
“We’re out about $1 million,” he said, if all are approved.
The requests have all been submitted in the past month, Gamiao said, after the geothermal issue once again took center stage with the County Council.
The money comes from the county’s geothermal royalty fund, which now has about $3.3 million, according to the Finance Department.
It is funded with the county’s share of royalties from Puna Geothermal Venture. The amount the county receives varies based on production levels, but has hovered recently around $500,000 a year, Gamiao said.
To date, the county has approved five relocations with the latest acquired April 5, according to records provided by the Planning Department.
County staff previously said eight homes were acquired, but some of those were duplicates or had their applications withdrawn.
The homes cost between $60,770 and $237,380 to acquire.
The average property has cost the county $129,281 to purchase.
All were purchased at 130 percent of their value, Gamiao said, as allowed by county policy. They were also located within a mile from the plant, Gamiao said.
The county has auctioned four of those properties to date, for a total amount of $216,100.
The county would be prohibited from auctioning properties acquired through the relocation program under a bill being considered by the County Council.
Gamiao said that would not impact the purchase of the seven properties under consideration. The Planning Department is not delaying processing the requests until the bill has its final vote, likely June 19.
“We’re doing what we need to do know,” he said.
County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong introduced the bill with the intent of creating a one-mile buffer zone.
The fund was established in 1998. Previously, the county’s royalty funds were accruing interest but not being used, Gamiao said.
In 2008, the County Council amended the policy to allow the funds to be used on capital projects and other services for Lower Puna.
Yagong’s bill would also amend the fund to only allow the monies to be spent on relocations as well as air quality and health studies near the plant and provide other means for ensuring safety, such as air monitors for residents.
Yagong said he thinks the fund is receiving enough revenue to cover at least some of those items if relocation requests continue.
“The fact of the matter is we have money that is available and of course we should use the money to do what we can to help the people there,” he said. “That fund will continue to grow.”
Some Puna residents have voiced concern over ending funding for services for the district.
The royalty fund currently covers the Pahoa council office as well as security for at Isaac Hale Beach Park and Pahoa Community Center.
Yagong said he is working on a third geothermal bill that would allow another geothermal fund to cover such expenses.
The second fund, known as the geothermal asset fund, was established in 1989 to reimburse nearby residents adversely affected by the plant.
It has $2.1 million, according to the Finance Department.
Gamioa said it is funded with a $50,000 annual contribution from PGV. There’s no record of it ever being used, he said.
Yagong said the bill, which will likely be introduced July 2, would also create a commission to recommend what projects should be funded.
The commission would consist of five Puna residents appointed by the mayor and County Council.
“We’re putting the asset fund into the hands of the community,” he said.
Yagong said the bill would limit expenditures from the fund to $350,000 a year.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.