Despite some posturing, some threats and lots of questions for new rail chief Dan Grabauskas, the Honolulu City Council Budget Committee on Wednesday advanced three budget bills for the controversial project.

Bills 31, 32 and 33 all advanced — two without amendment and the third with a tentative agreement in place to move forward on construction without delay.

The three bills represent, respectively, the operating and capital budgets for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation and a measure that would allow HART to issue and sell bonds for the project. All three go back to the full council for second reading, possibly April 25, then come back to committee again.

Most notably, Budget Chair Ann Kobayashi abandoned her proposed amendment to cut all but 14 of HART’s 142 budgeted full-time positions. She had floated the amendment to colleagues March 30 and had even included it on her worksheet of changes she planned to make Wednesday. But after a back-and-forth with new HART Executive Director and CEO Dan Grabauskas, who started the job Monday, she recommended to colleagues that they pass the $15.6 million budget without any cuts — for now.

(Read Inside Honolulu for up-to-the-minute updates from City Council budget deliberations and other government and politics nuggets.)

“What we’re doing is putting our trust in the new director,” Kobayashi told the committee. “There’s still another bite at the apple … we can certainly make revisions then.”

Grabauskas won over the council members by promising to take a hard look at frivolous expenses, public relations spending and office rent. He said he intends to initiate his own review of HART’s finances and will make sure the agency has “a lean and mean budget” for Fiscal Year 2013.

Tulsi Gabbard was only committee member to raise reservations. She has emerged as a potential swing vote on the project, and told Grabauskas she expects changes.

“I appreciate your asking for a fresh start, but I think people are at a level of frustration where going off of faith alone is absolutely not going to be enough,” Gabbard said. “So with your fresh start is going to have to come action and results and in a quick manner.”

While the operating budget survived unscathed, the capital budget did not. Kobayashi cut it from $492 million to $200 million — slicing nearly 60 percent of the construction work HART hopes to undertake in the coming year.

The $292 million in cuts matches the amount of the budget funded by bond money. Basically, the council doesn’t want HART to start debt-financed construction before a federal funding guarantee. The $200 million they left in comes from General Excise Tax surcharge revenue.

Grabauskas said the delay created by having to come back to the council to amend the budget after a Full Funding Grant Agreement could be costly to the project, because “time is money.” Instead, he said he would work on language for a proviso that would prohibit HART from spending bond-financed construction until the FFGA. He described it as “a way to include the total amount in the budget but accommodate also and address the concerns that have been raised.”

Kobayashi seemed amenable to that course of action, and said the budget cuts would stay in pending the insertion of language to that effect.

The final rail-related vote of the morning was the bill to authorize a bond float. Kobayashi, who could have held the bill indefinitely by not giving it a hearing in her committee, said she couldn’t support that measure but didn’t want to stand in the way of her colleagues. Gabbard, Romy Cachola and Breene Harimoto advanced the bill over the committee chair’s objections.

Later in the day, Grabauskas characterized his first budget meeting a success and was particularly proud of the “brainstorming” collaboration on the capital budget that could have been a major snag.

“If they’re comfortable with that kind of style, that’s my style,” Grabauskas told Civil Beat in an interview after the meeting. “I was very happy and pleased. … If that works, and I don’t even know if it will, but if it works, great.”

(For more of Grabauskas’ interview with Civil Beat, read: New Rail Chief Sees Himself as Intermediary Between Council, Feds).

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