Nearly one year after Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle was elected, he says he’s proudest of getting the city’s finances in order. And he has big dreams for a billion-dollar rainy day fund to ensure the city’s financial future.

But he’s outspoken about “completely untenable” union contracts, an “absolutely horrifying” pension reality and “exorbitant” taxes on Honolulu citizens.

The mayor said on the campaign trail he’d clean up Honolulu’s financial mess, and voters gave him that chance when they picked him in a special election to finish Mufi Hannemann‘s term a year ago this month.

While Carlisle acknowledged shortly after taking office that the city was in better financial shape than he expected, he says now that he took key steps to avert a budget crisis.

“For me, the biggest thing was to get the spending under control,” Carlisle said Thursday in an editorial board meeting at Civil Beat headquarters. “Capital improvements projects budget, that’s my big deal. And the fact that we ended up keeping our ratings, where it wasn’t happening elsewhere was of real importance to us because if you don’t understand debt service, then you are destined to poverty in old age.”

He said keeping a flat-line budget isn’t “rocket science” and is something he managed for years in the Office of the Prosecutor. It requires saving where you can and getting buy-in from the people who are already there — something he says he has at Honolulu Hale.

“It’s not like we’re not trimming everything we can already. We’ve gone lean, and we haven’t done it by hacking off heads. We’ve done it by attrition,” he said. “We don’t hire, or we hire later, and we try to hire from within.”

But Carlisle said even balancing the budget isn’t his ultimate goal.

“My biggest dream would be to leave office 10 years from now, if I can stay in that long, if I’m lucky enough to get elected a couple of times, and have an unassailable half-billion, billion-dollar fund that the only thing you can take from it is interest — when you need to,” he said. Such a sizable nest egg would allow the city to attain “the Everest of ratings” — AAA.

Carlisle said he has no interest in becoming governor, or landing any other political jobs, for that matter. He thinks being mayor of Honolulu is the most important job in the state, and has big plans for this town.

Collective Bargaining

Standing in the way of Carlisle’s dream are some unfortunate aspects of reality: Organized labor has a major seat at the table and is reluctant to give up ground on employee salaries; the world economy is still languishing; and the city has major obligations already.

“Obviously, our biggest problem is collective bargaining,” Carlisle said. “If we had partners who had exactly the same views that I did so if there was a unanimity amongst the mayors or amongst us and the governor, then I think we’d have an easier chance.”

He said the 5 percent pay cut enacted in the new contract with the Hawaii Government Employees Association was good, but that the 50-50 split for health benefits didn’t go far enough.

In particular, he said the deals that the Police and Fire Departments have gotten in the last few years are “completely untenable.”

“Firefighters and law enforcement have always been the sacred cow, and nobody messes with them because you gotta have their endorsements (to get elected),” he said. But even though Carlisle was part of the law enforcement community for more than a decade as Honolulu prosecutor, he said he never earned the approval of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.

Broken Retirement System

Carlisle will turn 59 next month, so he’s only a few years away from retirement age. But he says the retirement system is so broken that he’s not even sure there will be money left for him to take out, let alone future generations of city workers.

“I have absolutely no confidence by the time that I stop that there will be a retirement fund left over for me,” he said. “I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s one that’s viable unless we do something big. I’m not counting on getting any money.”

Asked what “something big” would entail, Carlisle said there are places on the mainland where retirees are told they need to take benefit cuts — or risk losing everything.

“Hey look, you’re not going to have any benefits at all. It’s going to be Enron all over again and you’re going to be out there with nothing,” he said. “When faced with that absolutely horrifying reality, it hits home.”

He pointed to Hawaii Employees’ Retirement System Board of Trustees Chairman Colbert Matsumoto, who Carlisle said could provide “a stark, cruel, unrelenting, bad, bleak picture for the future.” And he said a big part of the problem is the “entitlement mentality” that has convinced some that sacrifice is not necessary.

“If you have that mentality, you usually have the backing of some organization or some set of laws that assist you to keep on believing that,” he said.

“The people who are the most entitled on the planet Earth are the people who have shot, killed or stolen from people,” he said, slipping back into the mindset of a prosecutor. “‘I’m entitled to a lawyer, I’m entitled to this, I’m entitled to that. I don’t have to speak to you. I don’t have to take responsibility for what I did. You have to prove everything.'”

Raising Revenue

In addition to budget cuts and investment in infrastructure, another major factor in efforts to balance the budget — or eventually create a billion-dollar fund — is revenue.

He said raising fees on golfers has generated about a million dollars for the city. He expressed support for the fuel tax, saying, “There’s no reason not to do that except for political will.” And he said smart parking meters will also help.

“We’ve just go to sell people on the idea that free parking is at someone else’s expense,” he said.

Fees on water and sewage are also rising, but asked about the possibility of raising property tax rates — which represent a far larger chunk of the city’s financial picture — Carlisle said he wasn’t interested.

“I don’t see how that’s going to help all the people who are already struggling. Raising taxes in a down economy I keep on hearing certain people say that’s not really a good idea, and I kind of buy into that,” he said. “We’re already taxing people at exorbitant numbers and if we keep on doing it, it’s going to be at the expense of people who are on fixed incomes who are most vulnerable to those kind of changes.

“Everybody does that, but that’s after they’ve gotten themselves into trouble by spending money that they don’t have,” he said.

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