At a time when Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is asking for more money from taxpayers and increased fiscal restraint, he is seeking to boost his own budget by nearly 70 percent.

Caldwell’s proposed fiscal year 2015 budget, which was released Feb. 28, includes $709,752 in expenditures for his six-person office, which is $283,803 more than what was allocated for the current year.

While the amount could be considered a pittance when compared to the city’s entire $2.15 billion operating budget, the increase is, by percentage, much higher than any other department.

The next largest increase came in the Neighborhood Commission Office, which had to increase its budget by nearly 40 percent to help pay for board elections.

Most other departments saw proposed increases of less than 10 percent, while the overall executive branch budget went up by more than 7 percent.

Caldwell’s office budget is also comparatively much higher than that of former mayor Peter Carlisle, who spent about $480,000 in fiscal year 2013. The previous year he spent just over $450,000.

This also isn’t the first time Caldwell has sought a significant increase in his budget. His inaugural spending proposal for fiscal year 2014 asked for $652,868. The council approved $425,949.

Caldwell declined Civil Beat’s requests for an interview, but his spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke indicated in an email late Tuesday that friction between the mayor and the council is likely to blame for the disparity between what he asked for last year and what he received.

Salaries, Travel and Cell Phones

Honolulu City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi laughed aloud when asked whether she would make cuts to the mayor’s office budget in fiscal year 2015.

Her response? “Probably.”

Kobayashi chairs the City Council Budget Committee, and she said she was disappointed the mayor didn’t attend last week’s budget hearings to discuss his proposed spending plan.

“The mayor didn’t show up,” Kobayashi said. “Not even to say hi.”

One of the biggest increases in Caldwell’s office budget has been in salaries. The Carlisle administration spent $400,318 on salaries in fiscal year 2012, and $427,522 in 2013.

But under Caldwell that amount jumped to an estimated $557,460 in fiscal year 2014, which is a 30 percent leap. The current proposal adds even more.

A major reason for this hike is Caldwell’s hiring of Ray Soon as his chief of staff in August 2013. It was a new position in the administration and one that added a $125,000 annual salary to the bottom line of the mayor’s office.

Broder Van Dyke said the Carlisle administration left some positions in the mayor’s office vacant, and that officials were “siphoning” the funds from the open positions to use elsewhere.

Out-of-state travel expenses have also increased under the Caldwell administration. The mayor wants to raise his travel budget from $22,000 to $28,000 in fiscal year 2015.

Again, that’s much more than his predecessor spent.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell

PF Bentley/Honolulu Civil Beat

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell during his 2014 State of the City address.

Carlisle, who gained a reputation as a globetrotter while in office, spent less than $6,000 on travel in 2012 and just over $3,000 in 2013, despite the fact that he was on the road for months.

The former mayor says that some of his travel was paid for by Honolulu’s sister cities when they invited him to visit, or by conference and event organizers. He also made trips to Washington D.C. to make sure Honolulu would secure $1.55 billion in federal funding for rail.

“I did a lot of traveling and felt it was a significant part of the office,” Carlisle said. “Still to this day I believe that to be true … It’s diplomacy. It’s promoting good will and cultural exchanges.”

During last week’s hearings on the city’s budget, Managing Director Ember Shinn said one reason for the increase in the travel budget had to do with rising travel costs.

The mayor’s budget also states travel expenses need to be increased to allow Caldwell to bring support staff with him to various conferences and functions.

Since taking office, Caldwell has taken a number of business trips to the mainland, including to Chicago where he met with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Caldwell also recently traveled to the Philippines on a trade mission.

In all, city officials say he has taken five official business trips out of state since becoming mayor. This does not include his neighbor island travels, such as his jaunt to Lihue this week to listen to Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho’s State of the County address.

Shinn also noted during her presentation to the Budget Committee that there is a large increase in the cell phone budget for the mayor’s staffers. In fiscal year 2015, Caldwell wants to spend $7,200 on cell phones, which is thousands of dollars more than what has been spent in previous years.

“It is surprising,” Shinn said about the increase. “But we have cell phones for some of the staff members in that office who are required to be out and about with the mayor.”

Caldwell also wants to put $30,000 into a contingency fund for his office in 2015. That fund is used to pay for incidental expenses related to city business.

In the Council’s Court

At this point it’s unknown what exactly the City Council will trim from the mayor’s proposed budget, both for his office and elsewhere.

Caldwell’s budgeting tactics have caused a fractious relationship between him and the council ever since he submitted his inaugural budget in March 2013.

That particular proposal included a nickel-per-gallon gas tax that came as a surprise to many council members, including Kobayashi.

The council responded by killing the measure without a hearing, which left a multimillion dollar funding gap in the budget that needed to be reconciled.

But the budgetary sniping continued throughout last year’s deliberations with council members going back and forth with the mayor over everything from funding for vacant positions to earmarks set aside for nonprofits.

Broder Van Dyke pointed to these fights — particularly over grant funds for nonprofits — as a precursor to many of the cuts to Caldwell’s budget.

“The council lopped over $200,000 dollars off of the mayor’s office budget shortly after we held a press conference bringing attention to their earmarked Grant In Aid pet projects,” Broder Van Dyke said, referring to fiscal year 2014. In the end, he wrote, that 2014 appropriation came out to less than the Carlisle administration’s mayoral office budget.

Caldwell’s latest budget proposal seems to be causing just as much tension as last year, which might not bode well for the administration moving forward.

The mayor’s budget again includes tax hikes and other fee increases, some of which have yet to be approved by the council.

One in particular is a $10-a-month trash pick-up fee that the administration says would have brought in $10 million in revenues during the 2015 fiscal year.

But the council had already deferred the bill before the budget came out, leaving an immediate shortfall that now needs to be reconciled.

Caldwell has also proposed increasing property taxes on hotel and resorts, as well as on individuals whose property is worth more than $1 million, but who don’t qualify for a homeowner’s exemption.

Kobayashi and others have questioned the mayor’s strategy of inserting revenue increases into his budget without more assurances that those measures will be adopted.

The Budget Committee chair also criticized the mayor for wanting to increase his own budget when placing spending ceilings on other departments.

“You’d think that you’d cut back on expenses,” Kobayashi said. “Usually you start with your own office.”

Contact Nick Grube via email at nick@civilbeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @NickGrube.

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