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Hawaii’s historic preservation agency was given more than $600,000 by the Legislature in the past year to beef up staff in order to avoid losing its federal certification.
But the State Historic Preservation Division didn’t spend any of that money on new hires. Instead it bought iPads and new cars and extended the contract of a private company.
SHPD’s director said she thought that a couple of staff had been hired this year — the department’s total budget is about $2 million — but this is far short of the number of positions that the National Park Service says need to be filled in just the next few months in order to prevent federal action.
The agency is in charge of protecting Hawaii’s historic and archeological treasures. But the National Park Service has warned it will strip SHPD of its federal certification if it doesn’t hire vital staff by the end of September, potentially delaying billions of dollars in projects.
Worse, top state officials overseeing SHPD are confused about how many staff positions — or which ones — needed to be filled.
State officials said that the Park Service hadn’t been clear about the staffing requirements. And they defended the fund reallocations saying that they were unable to attract staff during the past year and needed to use the money by the end of June or it would be lost.
“I think I’ve been working on hiring,” said Pua Aiu, director of SHPD. “If I can’t use the money to hire the openings, which would certainly be preferable, then I think the best thing to do is get equipment for staff to do their job. And that’s what I did.”
The implications for the state if SHPD loses its certification are vast, according to Kiersten Faulkner, executive director of the Hawaii Historic Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for the preservation of Hawaii’s historic resources.
Any state project that involves federal funding, permitting or licensing could be impacted. Faulkner noted that this includes transportation projects, including highways, airports, bridges and even the $5.2 billion Honolulu rail project, as well as Department of Defense and military projects and Department of Agriculture rural development projects.
“If there is no one to say whether they are complying with federal law, they can’t proceed. And this can put a cloud over hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funding,” said Faulkner.
SHPD has known that it needs to hire staff for a year and a half. In 2010, the Park Service slapped the department with a “corrective action plan.” This means that SHPD is at high-risk of losing certification and half of its budget — about $500,000 of federal funds, and an equal amount of matching state funds — if it doesn’t make a series of operational improvements, according to federal documents.
Staffing is just one of the areas that must be fixed in order to comply with the corrective action plan. Last month, the federal agency sent a letter to state officials saying that staffing and retention of employees remain a major problem and that the department was at risk of failing to meet the corrective action plan.
Seven of the department’s 20 positions remain vacant, according to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, which oversees SHPD. But with less than five months left to meet the deadline of the corrective action plan, state officials were confused about how many positions still needed to be filled in order to keep SHPD’s federal certification.
The National Park Service listed 10 positions that must be filled in a letter to state officials last month.
But Aiu told Civil Beat that it was four positions.
And the private contractor who has been hired to help the state comply with the federal requirements believes it’s only one. Ray Soon, head of Solutions Pacific, which was awarded a $186,000 contract last year to help the department meet the federal requirements, wasn’t sure of the exact number of vacancies, but said that only one key position needed to be filled.
“They are well on their way,” he said of the department’s progress in hiring staff. “There is only one key vacancy left and that will get done in the next couple of months.”
Guy Kaulukukui, deputy director of DLNR, says the Park Service never made it clear what positions were needed. The Park Service says it did.
Civil Beat tried to find job listings for the vacant positions that the National Park Service says are needed. This includes six archaeologists, two technology specialists, a librarian and a local government specialist.
There is an ad for two archeologists on the Hawaii Department of Human Resources Development’s statewide employment website but none of the other positions set out by the Park Service are listed.
Other job listings on SHPD websites were expired or inaccurate.
There is a direct link to one position on SHPD’s home page, but clicking on it takes you to a Big Island archeologist position that says resumes must be postmarked by 2005 and addressed to Melanie Chinen, the former head of the department who left in 2007. The position is posted under a tab that says “New To This Web Site.”
What appears to be a second homepage for SHPD lists openings for a historic preservation GIS specialist and two burial site specialists. The link to the GIS specialist position is expired. Aiu told Civil Beat that this position had been filled.
There are also two burial specialist positions listed on the state’s general employment website.
Kaulukukui conceded that it was “troubling” that a year and a half into the corrective action plan, officials still hadn’t clarified with the Park Service which positions needed to be staffed.
“The fact that we are working from an assumption about what needs to be met under the (corrective action plan) is disconcerting,” he said.
Melia Lane-Kamahele, a National Park Service official, told Civil Beat that the 10 positions listed in last month’s report must be filled in order to meet the staffing needs in the corrective action plan.
Kaulukukui said that hadn’t been made clear until now.
“It’s our position that that hasn’t been specified and those 10 positions in particular never showed up anywhere until the April 19 letter (from the National Park Service),” he said.
“To me, it’s alarming that we are getting the news that these positions need to be filled now and in this way — from the media.”
But Lane-Kamahele said that this had always been clear.
“I think I would say that we have always been very clear about the requirements for grants and maintaining a professionally operating department that meets mandated requirements,” she said.
Kaulukukui said he has set up a meeting this week in Washington D.C. with Stephanie Toothman, a director at the National Park Service, to discuss the corrective action plan, and in particular, the staffing situation.
Last July, at the start of this fiscal year, SHPD had approximately $625,000 to pay for new staff. But by April, the department had failed to attract new hires and decided to divert the funds to other needs, according to Aiu.
In April, she redirected about $400,000 for the following:
About one-third of the $625,000 will be lost if it’s not allocated by June 30, the end of the 2012 fiscal year. Unused money is redeposited into the state’s general fund.
Kaulukukui defended the purchases, but also said it was unfortunate that SHPD had failed to meet staffing levels.
“We wouldn’t have diverted the vacancy savings if there was a chance they would be needed for salary,” he said by email. “Given that, the diverted uses are very valid. Improving the safety of our staff in the field and enhancing the data collecting and connectivity while out there. That being said, we’re all disappointed we were unable to recruit into those positions and are determined not to be in the same position a year from now.”
Aiu said that the $175,000 for new vehicles was important for ensuring employee safety.
SHPD staff needs to travel throughout the islands for site visits and Aiu said that the vehicles the department has been using are more than eight years old.
“Maui and Hilo don’t work,” she said. “The one in Kona, I’m afraid one day my staff person will be driving somewhere and it will die on him.”
The money covers four four-wheel-drive vehicles, estimated at about $35,000 each, and a hybrid vehicle.
SHPD’s dismal track record of recruiting and retaining staff is at the heart of why it might lose its federal certification. The agency has been struggling for years to deal with the problem.
Out of 20 available positions, one-third are currently vacant, according to DLNR. And between 2004 and 2010, a staggering 37 employees left SHPD, according to a report by the National Park Service.
A survey included in the 2010 report found that office morale was “very bad.” Reasons included a heavy workload, a chaotic workplace and constant staff turn-over.
One respondent commented that morale “was better recently, but it was so bad before, it’s hard to tell.”
While the department has struggled to retain workers, it’s also had a hard time attracting qualified staff. State officials have long said that it’s difficult to find applicants who have specialized knowledge of Native Hawaiian culture and history. Salaries are also significantly lower than in the private sector, said Aiu.
Two open archeologist positions listed on the statewide employment website had minimum salaries of $43,000 and $50,000.
While the $625,000 designated for hiring this year could have been used to increase the salaries of open positions, Aiu said that this wasn’t a good strategy because the department might not be allocated sufficient sums from the Legislature year after year to cover the costs.
However, Kaulukukui said that this was something that SHPD should look at.
“We have the flexibility to pay more,” he said. “It frustrates me a little bit that we don’t. It’s something that the division really needs to look at.”
But he said he was hesitant to have top DLNR officials do that for SHPD.
“We shouldn’t dip our hands down into the operations of any division,” he said. “Division administrators need to have leeway to allocate resources.”
Last year, DLNR hired Solutions Pacific, an outside contractor, to help the department meet the requirements of the corrective action plan. Ray Soon, the company’s principal, who was a member of Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s transition team, received a one-year, competitively bid contract for $186,000.
An appointee of President Bill Clinton, Soon served for nine years on the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. He is a former director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and holds a master’s degree in city planning from Harvard University.
Last week, the contract was modified to include an extra $165,000, which is being taken out of this year’s budget. All of the money will be used to hire about a half-dozen temporary employees to process a backlog of more than 400 permits.
The new employees, which include archeologists, will be hired for 12 weeks to do the job that SHPD staff would normally do, but have fallen behind on. The hires will not help fulfill the federal hiring requirements, but Kaulukukui said that it could help to attract new employees in time to meet the September deadline.
“Solutions Pacific can hire much faster than we can,” he said. “The state process is very cumbersome and slow. We’re also counting on them to be able to convince people to take jobs that we as an agency have not been able to do. For years, we haven’t had a track record of attracting qualified applicants.”
Aiu said that she felt the strategy was a good one and that by clearing the backlog it could help make the office a more attractive place to work.
But time is running out. The department has less than five months to hire the full-time employees.
Aiu said that it can take more than three months to fill a position.
The status report conducted by the National Park Service said that SHPD had improved in many areas, but not all. SHPD must meet all requirements in order to keep its certification.
Soon didn’t know that Sept. 30 is the deadline for fulfilling the corrective action plan. Still, he was optimistic that SHPD would meet the requirements and characterized the Park Service’s review last month as positive.
“The National Park Service comes in half way and said, ‘How are you doing? There are some good things that are being done and some not,'” he said. “So NPS pats them on the back and says you are doing good. However, you haven’t finished this and you haven’t finished this. There are concerns that have to be addressed in order to meet the CAP. But that is typical of any mid-term report. I’m sure it’s like getting grades in school.”
Hawaii will be the first state in the country to lose its certification if it fails to meet the requirements in the corrective action plan, according to the National Park Service. Federal officials are working to come up with a backup plan if this happens.
DLNR provided the following document detailing the positions it thought needed to be filled, and those that the National Park Service says need to be filled. DLNR says that some of the jobs on the National Park Service’s April list have been filled. An official at the federal agency said that as of last month, none of the 10 positions had been filled.
DISCUSSION: How would you rate the progress of the State Historic Preservation Division?*