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State of the County 2011: Kenoi optimistic despite challenges

Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi presents the State of the County Address at the West Hawaii Civic Center. Photography by Baron Sekiya | Hawaii 24/7

Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Editor

Mayor Billy Kenoi gave his first State of the County address Thursday morning (Jan 27) in Kona, pointing out the positives despite a still-ailing economy.

Mayor Billy Kenoi

Mayor Billy Kenoi

The mayor, half-way through his first term, said he knew it would be challenging when he took office in December 2008, but his administration and the County Council have worked together to balance the budget and pay the bills.

Between 2000 and 2008, the county faced one deficit year – a $7.4 million shortfall in 2002 – while the Kenoi administration inherited a $38.1 million shortage. In 2010, the figure was $44.8 million.

The county’s overall budget was $403 million in 2008 and currently is $376 million. The county has cut 125 vacant positions and now employs 180 fewer workers than in 2008, Kenoi said.

The mayor said he appreciates the cooperation, collaboration, teamwork and partnerships from his staff, the County Council and the community. After hearing how other mayors are handling these challenging economic times at last week’s Mayor’s Conference in Washington, D.C., Kenoi said he feels pretty good about the Big Island’s future.

“We know we don’t have all the answers, but we need to work together to make a better life for our children and our children’s children,” he said. “That ultimately is our responsibility as decision-makers.”

Mass Transit

Kenoi said public transportation is key to the island’s quality of life. A mass transit system is important for getting students to after-school activities and jobs, shuttling the elderly to medical and social appointments, and ferrying employees to their jobs.

Most notably, Kenoi said, six of the island’s top 10 employers are along the Kohala Coast, although most workers live in South Kona or Hilo and must spend hours on the road. A reliable bus service cuts traffic congestion and saves workers transportation costs.

Since 2008, the island’s Hele-On bus ridership has increased 52 percent to more than 1 million passengers last year, he said.

Bus routes have increased 20 percent, including nearly quadrupling service to lower Puna, the fastest growing region in the state.

However, Kenoi said, the days of free service are coming to an end and passengers will be charged between 50 cents and $1 in the coming months. Students and kupuna are likely to be exempt from the fee.

That should bring in $747,000.

Permits

Kenoi also noted his campaign promise to streamline the construction permitting process is moving along.

It typically used to take 6 months to a year for a permit to move though various departments and get a final stamp of approval. Kenoi said that was too long, considering the actual review of the permit takes about one hour of real working time.

With cooperation from the state Department of Health, representatives from each department gather in one room and shuffle the permit requests through at one time. The process now takes about one month.

The review system will be overlaid with a new computer software, Kenoi said, “although it’s not about computers. It’s about people.”

Parks & Recreation

The mayor also stressed keeping the island’s youth away from drugs, gangs and violence.

Every dollar invested in youth today, he said, saves $7-$11 tomorrow. Spending $6 per child to keep all county parks and recreations facilities open for furlough Fridays is a good investment, he said.

He also said he supports building a recreation facility in Puna, his hometown. In his 42 years, Kenoi said he has not seen any investment in the district.

The island’s youngsters should have the opportunity to learn sportsmanship, teamwork and social skills from community volunteer coaches, not from lectures or rap songs, he said.

Infrastructure

The Big Island received $46 million – or 39 percent – in federal stimulus money from the state’s $125 million share. Those funds included $11 million to repair bridges and roads in Hamakua and $35 million for the first phase of Ane Keohokalole Highway in Kona.

Kenoi said he has been asked why Kona needed a new road. His answer was to imagine Hilo without Kilauea Street or Kinoole Street.

The mayor also hopes the state will release $15 million to construct the new highway between Hina Lani Street and Kaiminani Drive.

The mayor also said the county is committed to supporting agriculture, renewable energy and the visitor industry in an effort to make the island more sustainable and create jobs.

The mayor said he and his cabinet have been conducting regular meetings in every district across the island and will continue to be available to listen to residents’ concerns.

Kenoi gave his speech at the West Hawaii Civic Center, which will house all county offices and agencies when it officially opens next month.

“I think that’s an important part of today – to be here in the new West Hawaii Civic Center. There is a sense in West Hawaii that things are moving along and things are getting done,” Kenoi said. “We have accomplished a lot and we’ll keep going.”

Kenoi will give the same address at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Aupuni Center Conference Room in Hilo. The public is invited, although seating is limited.

The Hilo address will be broadcast live on radio station KPUA 670 AM.

Video Courtesy of Office of the Mayor, County of Hawaii

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