More than an expense sheet, a government budget is a moral document. It tells the story of a community’s needs, the priorities of elected officials and the government’s responsiveness. Allotments of money reflect the relative value placed on programs, institutions and infrastructure, and are a blueprint for the year to come.
As deliberations on the fiscal year 2019 budget draw to a close, we decided to take a look at this document and decipher the story it tells about community concerns and elected officials’ willingness to engage with them. Budget deliberations began at the end of March with Mayor Alan Arakawa’s proposed budget, and were followed by numerous county meetings, long hours of testimony and added drafts and provisions. These meetings filled the months of April and May and lead to where we are now. Bill 57, a bill for an ordinance to authorize the budget, is now on Mayor Arakawa’s desk, awaiting his signature after being approved on May 29 during a meeting of the Council of the County of Maui.
It’s a lot to unpack. So, we’re putting your voice at the forefront. While there are surely untold tales about hours of late-night collaboration, county council intrigue and questionable motives, we’ll focus on public testimony. This is a story of community concerns and testimony within a $758 million county budget. This is a story by you, the citizens of Maui County.
- The Maui Lani Roundabout
Maui residents hate traffic. Who doesn’t? While we don’t deal with Los Angeles-like congestion (thank God), there are areas that residents know to avoid at certain times. At least, when it’s possible. For many residents, parents and children, the four-way stop at the intersection of South Kamehameha Avenue and Maui Lani Parkway near Pomaika‘i Elementary is unavoidable.
Traffic can regularly reach queues of 30-50 cars in each direction, causing Marceline Ching, a longtime resident at Maui Lani to testify, “I can’t think of another intersection on this island that has as much traffic backup, other than Paia Town… I’m very disappointed and disheartened that this has taken so long.”
Laks Abraham, Community Program Manager for the Blue Zones Project Central Maui, which is advocating for the roundabout and safety for active communities, also testified to keep the project funded, “Roundabouts are designed to slow speed, and speed is a critical component of pedestrian safety.” She added, “For example, a pedestrian hit at 20 miles per hour has a 90 percent of surviving, in comparison to when you go up to 40 miles per hour, it drops to 10 percent.”
From the testimonies it’s evident that, for many parents, it isn’t just about getting to work on time. “I have witnessed many close calls and stressful moments crossing the intersection, as well as watching other children and families trying to figure out the right way to traverse,” Parkways resident Raphael Wellerstein said. “Mornings are stressful for commuters trying to get through this intersection, and the kids and families trying to utilize the pedestrian walking paths, are sometimes in harm’s way.”
The Mayor Proposed: $2.865 million for a roundabout to solve traffic and safety issues, and make the asphalt go in a circle.
The Council Decided: to reduce the allocation by $1.465 million and use the remaining funding for traffic signals. Then, it backtracked that decision, restoring the mayor’s proposed funding and including the roundabout as a line item in Bill 57.
Relative Cost: The construction of the Maui Lani roundabout will consume about 0.38% of the county’s 2019 budget.
- The Real Property Tax Rate
OK, so I was wrong. It wasn’t just Maui citizens who showed up to testify. Nonresidents (or “part-time residents”) showed up and made noise too. And why would a nonresident want a say in our county policy? To keep taxes on their multi-million dollar homes low, of course.
This year, Mayor Arakawa proposed a tiered system of real property taxes that would increase tax rates on properties valued at over $1.5 million. “We’re doing this to protect the working-class residents who are having such a hard time out there,” he said, according to The Maui News. “The group that we’re planning to increase taxes for can afford to pay a little extra to help the local economy out.” Budget Director Sandy Baz reassured the public that only 2,177 properties would pay the increased rate, and the proposed increase would not likely impact residents who only own a single home since most of those resident-owned properties fall below the $1.5 million range.
Still, it was seen as a threat to Maui’s vacationing class. “My husband and I are officially residents of California but spend quite a lot of time on Maui and we own several properties here,” testified Susan Haviland, a proud land-occupier. “If you are trying to get nonresident property owners to sell up and leave, this kind of sudden tax increase may be a very good strategy,” she added, with apparent ignorance of local issues.
Testimony on this issue is a nauseating display of either a complete lack of awareness or unbridled entitlement and self-interest, especially when read next to pleas from local families for affordable housing. “I cannot afford this enormous property tax increase,” complained the Kummerehls of Wailea, who own multiple homes and “provide jobs for gardeners, pool services, house cleaners and window washers.”
One testifier even lamented about how these tiered tax rates would hurt short term rental owners on Maui, where one in seven homes is a vacation rental unit. “Maui will no longer be the place with Aloha spirit,” said Uwe Wessbecher, a man with a 408 area code.
The Mayor Proposed: a tiered tax system that lowered real property tax rates on properties valued less than $500,000, maintained rates for those valued between $500,000 and $1.5 million and increased them on properties over $1.5 million.
The Council Decided: to scrap the mayor’s plan for “progressive” tax rates in a 6-3 vote. Its amended real property tax rate schedule is mostly identical to last year’s, with cents shaved off each classification, per $1000 property valuation. The three councilmembers who voted against this amended version were Alika Atay, Elle Cochran and Kelly King.
Relative Cost: Mayor Arakawa projected revenue of $331.6 million from his tiered tax rate plan. Under the council’s rates, that revenue drops to $321.9 million, a difference of $9.7 million. That’s a loss of 1.3% of the budget, an amount almost equal to 50-times the grant disbursement for early childhood education.
- The Biodiesel Fuel Tax Rate
Gas is expensive on this island. It’s a fact of life we’ve come to live with, but testifiers protested a proposed increase in the fuel tax. Fuel tax is charged per gallon and its revenue goes to the highway fund.
But it is also perceived as a sin tax. Burning fuel contributes to undesirable climate change and pollution, and these taxes discourage fuel use and pass along the unseen costs of emissions to consumers. With this logic in mind, users of biofuels were outraged at a proposed tax increase on their fuel.
Bob King, president and co-founder of Pacific Biodiesel, laid out reasons for opposing the fuel tax that were echoed by many biofuel supporters. Basically, King (who is also Councilmember Kelly King’s husband) stated that biodiesel is renewable, biodegradable and non-toxic, unlike fossil fuels. Additionally, biofuels are renewable and help the county meet sustainability goals. So, testifiers argued, a tax would disincentivize the transition to 100 percent renewable energy.
The Mayor Proposed: increasing the tax on biofuels to 23 cents per gallon.
The Council Decided: to remove the proposed tax.
Relative Cost: The elimination of the biodiesel fuel tax reduced estimated revenue by $89,000. That’s .012 percent of the total budget, or three percent of a roundabout.
- Maui Nui Botanical Gardens (and other agriculture projects)
Evidently Maui Nui Botanical Gardens has touched a lot of lives. “One example of the Garden’s integral role in Hawaii’s plant conservation is their participation in saving Kanaloa kahoolawensis from certain extinction,” supporter Vickie Caraway testified . “The Maui Nui Botanical Garden has had one of only two remaining individuals of K. kahoolawensis in captive propagation for many years.” What’s more, “Maui Nui Garden has also been a central cooperator in efforts to save Kokia cookei, considered by many as one of the ‘living dead’ as it was so rare that the plant lost the ability to produce viable seeds.”
There are pages of testimony like this, from cultural practitioners praising the preservation and propagation of traditionally used plants, to workers who battle invasive species regularly and depend on a partnership with the garden.
Teachers and educators like Christine Lamb supported the garden too, “I care about the work the Garden does because, while a teacher at Baldwin High, my students were able to visit and learn about culture and botany at no expense to the students. The volunteers and staff were always knowledgeable and willing to share and engage the students. MNBG is the best place on Maui for visitors and residents to learn the cultural history of Maui County’s unique plants. MNBG provides a place for students of botany and Hawaiian culture to learn plant identification and experiment with traditional uses. MNBG is a centrally located field trip site for more than 1,500 Maui students each year.”
The Mayor Proposed: $150,000 for Maui Nui Botanical Gardens as part of $1.245 million allocated for grants and disbursements for agricultural promotion.
The Council Decided: to maintain the mayor’s funding for the garden at $150,000, but as part of a smaller $840,000 allocation for agricultural promotion grants and agricultural promotion.
Relative Cost: Total agricultural promotion grants and disbursements make up 0.11 percent of this year’s county budget and is one-fifth the size of the allocation for grants and disbursements to the visitors industry.
- Affordable Housing
Despite its beauty, Hawai‘i has been ranked the worst state in which to make a living, with median home prices on Maui reaching $700,000 in 2017. Testifiers asked for three main solutions for the need of affordable homes on the island: fund the enforcement of short-term rental rules, pay for affordable housing projects and halt the development of unaffordable luxury homes. The testimonies shared show the depth of the need.
“Currently, I am living in what one would call a slumlord’s home. I pay $2,200 to live behind a halfway house in central Wailuku,” said one testifier. “I am depressed that I cannot give my son a decent home. I have little to no recourse. I am living like this – as a master level teacher of Science and place-based education, an active member in our community trying to preserve our environment and Hawaiian culture – with a career of 20 years and a double master’s degree.”
Another teacher, Justin Hughey, testified, “Working paycheck to paycheck, teaching by day and serving tables at night just to pay for a one bedroom apartment didn’t make a lot of sense. Before I was fortunate enough to purchase a home from Na Hale O Maui I was paying about $1,300 a month for a one bedroom apartment in Lahaina.” Since then it’s gotten worse. “Teachers in Lahaina have informed me, now they are paying upwards of $2,000 a month for a one bedroom apartment. A teacher I work with makes $2,600 a month and she is paying $2,000 for a one bedroom apartment.”
The price of housing costs the county good teachers, he concluded. “I know good teachers who are dreaming of being able to purchase a truly affordable home from the Kohoma Homes project in Lahaina. Purchasing a truly affordable home will be the determining factor that will allow them the opportunity to stay teaching at King Kamehameha III Elementary. If the state is going to continue to pay teachers the worst salary in the country when factored in the cost of living, then the County needs to find creative solutions to keep them in those important jobs”
The Mayor Proposed: a $6.63 million transfer to the affordable housing fund.
The Council Decided: to transfer $6.43 million to the affordable housing fund (which set aside $1 million for the Kohoma project) after taking $200,000 for a certification adjustment.
Relative Cost: The transfer will consume 0.85 percent of the 2019 budget and cost less than one-fifth of allocation for the Wailuku Civic Complex (the construction of which, by the way, could gentrify Wailuku Town and raise housing prices even more). After the transfer, the affordable housing fund will be worth about $20.8 million, still less than half the $44 million allocation for the Civic Complex.
Setting the stage for the second and final reading of the Bill 57, an ordinance authorizing this budget, Councilmember Riki Hokama concluded that the budget committee worked diligently, reflecting on their process, “we see how we can incorporate the needs of departmental input, community review and recommendations.” The bill now awaits Mayor Alan Arakawa’s approval.
The upcoming fiscal year 2019, which starts July 1, will show whether elected officials heard and understood your needs. The budget is a story, and intertwined with it are your stories. If you’ve been misunderstood or ignored, speak up – this is an election year. Budget deliberations begin again in March 2019 and you can always track the county council at www.mauicounty.us. Of course, we’re here too.