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Kenoi: It’s your administration

Karin Stanton/ Contributing Editor

Mayor Billy Kenoi said he is well aware this is a big island, and he is determined to bring government to the people all over it.

Kenoi was joined by numerous department chiefs and senior staff Tuesday evening at the Kona Town Meeting to answer questions and hear concerns for as long as it took.

“It’s not my administration, it’s your administration,” the mayor told more than 200 people at the Old Kona Airport pavilion.

Sounding at times as if he were still stumping for the job he’s had for nearly five months, Kenoi introduced his cabinet members, including Parks & Recreation director Bob Fitzgerald, who Kenoi said is the first department chief to be based full-time in Kona. 

He then turned his attention to the biggest issue and toughest challenge he now faces: a budget shortfall and an economy that does not look like it will get any better by next year’s budget. 

Right now, Kenoi and the County Council are wrestling with a $40 million deficit this year and a $71.8 million shortfall over the next two years.

“We all know next year will be more challenging than this year,” he said.

Keeping residents employed is a top priority, Kenoi said, and federal money dedicated to roads and transportation projects will help in at least one sector.

“A lot of our construction workers are on the bench. We don’t need to train those employees,” he said. “We need to make sure the people who can be employed are employed.”

Kenoi said the largest employers on the island are state, county and federal governments, followed by the Hilton Waikoloa Village, KTA SuperStores and a few more Kohala Coast resorts.

As the second largest Big Island employer, the county can’t be counted on to help much. One of his first moves as mayor was to institute a hiring freeze and axe 42 vacant positions. 

“The body we don’t hire today is the body we don’t have to layoff tomorrow,” he said.

Kenoi also touched on the 2% open space fund, which was approved by 57 percent of the voters and mandates setting aside that much to purchase land for parks and preservation.

He is advocating a moratorium on the fund, which stands at $8.8 million and is due at least another $2 million this year from the county coffers. 

At a time when each department has been asked to slash budgets  by 5 percent this year and another 10 percent next year, he said the county needs that $4.5 million over each of the next two years.

“I made that decision,” Kenoi said. “After we cut everything we could, I couldn’t justify that $4.5 million for open space. That’s irresponsible.”

Kenoi said he supports the open space fund in the long run.

“When times are good, it makes sense,” he said. “I’m not looking two years, four years. I’m looking to the future. These are huge deficits we’re facing.”

The possibility of losing $18 million – or a portion of it – from the state hotel tax could prove another big hit, Kenoi said.

If the Legislature elects to keep that money to balance the state budget, the county will suffer serious consequences and may have to consider employee furloughs or a real property tax hike.

“And that is not what we want to see happen,” he said.

Among the other questions, concerns and topics raised:

West Hawaii County Band: Band members asked Kenoi to appoint a conductor for the West Hawaii band, which currently has a volunteer director and is overseen by the director in Hilo. 

Sirens and emergency shelters: Each of the emergency sirens has its own independent battery pack, Civil Defense Agency chief Quince Mento said. 

Sirens will be used only if the public needs to be aware of an imminent danger.

“Right now the message is get to high ground and the good thing about living on the Big Island is you can get to high ground fairly easily,” he said.

The county has purchased seven generators (with state money) for island radio stations. The generators have been sitting in a warehouse since December, but the radio stations should be getting them shortly, Mento said. The generators are to be used in case of an emergency, such as the October 2006 earthquakes that knocked most stations off the air.

“We’re in the process right now,” he said. “Hopefully soon that won’t be an issue.”

The county has an agreement with the state Department of Education to use public schools as shelters in the event coastal areas need to be evacuated. 

Schools are ideal, Mento said, as they have water, power, restrooms and large spaces such as gyms and cafeterias.

Four additional generators have been provided to the Water Department, with one already installed above Kona Community Hospital. This will allow water to be pumped at key locations for pick up or distribution by truck, Mento said.

Parks & Rec: Fitzgerald said he runs the department on a FUDA basis: fun, use, dreams and affordability.

He said parks and recreation should be fun, almost everyone uses the facilities, his department should help fuel and fulfill dreams, and it all has to be done within a tight budget.

“Everybody is going to come through my department,” he said, “and Parks & Rec needs help. We’ll try to get it done in tight economic times. We have good people in every community, people who care.”

Public Works: Department chief Warren Lee said he is working with a budget that has not grown in two years. The biggest chunk of the $46 million – $27 million – goes toward road maintenance and repairs, he said.

Planning: Director Bobby Jean Leithead-Todd said the department currently does not have the computer software to properly track paperwork. She would like to find a program that will allow staff to input information once and then track applications and permits from desks to deadlines.

The department also is reviewing fee structures and planning rules, as well as tackling the subdivision code, which has not been updated for at least three decades.

Another major task is implementing the four community development plans adopted by the council and shepherding along the others.

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