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Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell hopes to cut more than 600 unfilled city jobs in order to save the city $37 million and help close a projected budget deficit, as well as relieve long-term government pension and health care costs.
Caldwell’s announcement, during his second State of the City address Wednesday morning at the Ala Moana Beach Park’s McCoy Pavilion, highlighted his focus on fiscal restraint as the city faces a projected $156 million budget shortfall for the 2015 fiscal year.
At the same time, the mayor plans to increase funding for some of his top priorities: park beautification, alleviating homelessness and investing in alternative modes of transportation to deal with Honolulu’s severe traffic problems.
“I am committed to reducing the size of government,” said Caldwell. “Not to cut for the sake of cutting, but to ensure that we are striking the right balance between spending wisely and providing the best services for the people of Oahu.”
Caldwell, who ran on a platform of fixing and improving the nuts and bolts of city infrastructure and services, hasn’t deviated from that line during his first year as mayor.
His speech outlined his progress in repaving hundreds of miles of roads, staying on schedule in fixing the city’s dilapidated sewer system — a $4 billion project required under a legal settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — and increasing bus service.
The mayor also touted the city’s legal triumphs last week over rail opponents, allowing Honolulu’s $5.2 billion rail project to move forward.
“It’s also great news that we have cleared all of our major legal hurdles, and while I can’t say we are forever out of the woods — and I believe no one can say that — the courts have given us the green light to go forward and complete the rail project,” said Caldwell.
The Honolulu Authority for Rail Transit has built more than 50 columns along the urban corridor route that stretches from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center. By the end of 2014, more than 220 columns are expected to be finished along the route’s first 10 miles.
“HART is going gangbusters,” said Caldwell.
While half of the mayor’s speech focused on his progress in meeting goals laid out in his first State of the City address, Caldwell also announced new areas of focus.
With two rail lawsuits behind the city, Caldwell says he will focus on spurring transit oriented development, or what he hailed as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to design and recreate neighborhoods.”
“The housing in these transit enhanced neighborhoods will be affordable for middle class working families like teachers, office workers, and young professionals, whose lives will be linked to where they work, play, and gather with family and friends,” he said.
HART is also expected to begin doling out $1 billion in contracts for work this year.
Rail is expected to ease travel for Leeward area residents who battle two-hour commutes between downtown during rush hour. But that’s just one facet of the mayor’s transportation agenda.
Caldwell also hopes to make Honolulu a more bike-friendly city and is proposing $1.4 million in the city’s upcoming budget to improve biking infrastructure, including building protected lanes.
By the end of 2015, he plans to build a lane on King Street, than runs from downtown Honolulu to the University of Hawaii area. Situated between the sidewalk and parked cars, the lane would protect bikers from the flow of cars.
“Protected bike lanes turn streets into places where bicyclists are welcomed rather than barely tolerated,” said Caldwell. “They encourage people who may not ride a bike every day or may not feel comfortable competing with cars.”
The mayor also plans to initiate a bikeshare program that allows residents and visitors to rent bikes for short trips.
It’s been a tough year for Caldwell when it comes to his homeless agenda. Last month, a $142 million deal to sell public housing projects in Honolulu to a private developer collapsed, leaving holes in the city’s budget and dealing a blow to the mayor’s plans to move chronic homeless off the streets by getting them into housing first.
As the mayor delivered his speech in Ala Moana Park to an audience composed primarily of city workers, about a dozen homeless people slept on tarps and blankets outside the park.
Caldwell said he wasn’t going to give up on his homeless agenda.
He’s proposing to transfer $18.9 million from the city’s affordable housing fund to the Housing First shelter programs. He also hopes to boost the city’s homeless outreach services by $3 million.
“We must keep our streets, sidewalks and public spaces open and clean for the purpose they were intended, to be used safely by the public, by all of us,” he said. “At the same time, we also have compassion for those who are living without homes, perhaps with drug, alcohol or mental illness problems.”
Meanwhile, Caldwell said the city would continue to clear “items,” ostensibly the belongings of the homeless, from city property. The city has been clearing three to 11 tons of items from city property every week, including two tons from Ala Moana park in the past couple days, he said.
Despite Oahu’s focus on energy efficiency and alternative energy sources, energy costs are a big expense for city government. The city’s energy bill, including fuel, totaled nearly $92 million in fiscal year 2013, up from $76.4 million two years earlier, Civil Beat’s media partner, KITV reported this week.
Caldwell hopes to make a dent in this bill by changing out the city’s 51,700 street lights with LED lights, saving the city $3 million annually.
While Caldwell pushed his agenda of cutting costs while investing in city infrastructure, how much of this he will achieve will depend in large part on the Honolulu City Council.
The administration’s budget is expected to be released Friday, at which point it will go to the City Council for review and what council members say will likely be a contentious back and forth negotiation between their priorities and those of the mayor.
Caldwell has already encountered resistance to two of his proposals aimed at raising money for the city’s coffers: advertising on the side of buses and a $10 trash pick-up fee.
In a bid to drum up support for his bus proposal, which would help subsidize the mass transit service via private funds, Caldwell reiterated the distinction between ads on the sides of buses and billboards — which are banned on Oahu.
“As you can see, these are billboards, which I will always oppose,” he said, pointing to a screen behind him with a photo of a bus with an ad on the side of it. “I repeat, I will never, ever support billboards on Oahu.”
The audience applauded.
You can read the full text of Caldwell’s speech here.