- Special Projects
Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 9 primary, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions.
District 4 includes Hawaii Kai, Kuliouou, Niu Valley, Aina Haina, Wailupe, Waialae-Iki, Kalani Valley, Kahala, Wilhemina Rise, Kaimuki, portions of Kapahulu, Diamond Head, Black Point, Waikiki, and Ala Moana Beach Park.
Name: Natalie Iwasa
Office: Honolulu City Council District 4
Education: BBA from University of Wisconsin; various accounting courses at University of Hawaii and Hawaii Pacific University
Community organizations: Co-founder and president of Cycle On Hawaii; member, Livable Hawaii Kai Hui; member, Hawaii Trust for Public Land; member, Hawaii Bicycling League
1. Why are you running for the Honolulu City Council?
Honolulu is home for me and my family. For over four years I have been attending City Council meetings and testifying on a variety of issues. I have seen politically motivated decisions and legislation being passed that was self-serving, at the expense of the taxpayer and public in general. Honolulu is a better place when people get involved and don’t just “leave it to someone else to take care of,” and I’m willing to do that.
2. A recent survey found that homelessness has increased by 30 percent on Oahu in the past five years. How would you tackle the problem?
Homelessness is a complex problem for which there is no easy fix. Homelessness can be caused by many things – underemployment among the young and kupuna living on fixed incomes in our high-cost housing market; medical or student debt; mental illness; drug addiction; unemployment – the list goes on. For that reason, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
With the impact of a growing homeless population across the city, including in our most prominent centers for tourism, it’s critical that we commit to investing in long-term solutions that work to reduce homelessness. Some solutions include programs affecting all citizens of Honolulu, such as economic development and affordable housing programs that can help prevent homelessness, and those that specifically target the chronically homeless.
For example, “Housing First” seems to be working in other cities and is recommended as a best practice for transitioning the chronically homeless in systematic steps from temporary shelters to appropriate permanent housing, providing re-socialization, job training, medical support and other services that help to prevent recurrence. It’s been 85 percent effective on the mainland, and I think it’s a step in the right direction. I would like to see the administration develop benchmarks, so we can assess progress of the program as we move forward.
In addition, given the recent reports about requests by nonresidents for “reservations” in our homeless shelters, we should also look at a program to provide tickets back to the mainland.
3. Oahu has one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. Do you think the City Council should play a role in trying to make housing more affordable?
Yes. Real estate development, including housing, is a costly and lengthy process. The process is further complicated by the need for stronger collaboration between the City Department of Planning and Permitting and the State Land Use Commission, and the various environmental protection agencies. While it is important that we protect our coastline, environment, endangered species and sacred Hawaiian archeological sites, when development does get the green light, costs have already mounted, supporting developers’ rationale for limiting development of affordable housing. The City Council needs to drive process improvements both in city organizations and through better collaboration with the state to make development restrictions more reasonable, and to provide incentives or requirements for developers to incorporate affordable housing into all projects.
We should also consider reform of the property tax system to effectively differentiate local, multi-homeowners from foreign speculators.
4. Honolulu has some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation. Some see rail as part of the solution. What other strategies should the city employ to alleviate congestion?
Any effort to get people out of their cars will reduce traffic congestion. To that end, the city should continue its work improving bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and motivating people to bike and walk more. Bus service should be restored to areas where people have found the cuts created hardships. Ride sharing and car pooling incentives have proven effective in other major cities, particularly when promoted and supported by employers and state-sponsored ride sharing tax credits. Traffic lights should be better synchronized in high-traffic and through-traffic areas.
And as much as possible, we should motivate people to live where the jobs are and put jobs where people live. Of course, a part of this is closely related to development of affordable housing in the urban core that can reduce both commute time and traffic congestion.
5. The mayor unsuccessfully sought to create additional sources of revenue for the city this year, including charging residents for trash pick-up and placing ads on the outside of buses. Do you think the city needs to boost its revenue? If so, what types of proposals would you support?
Before increasing taxes and fees, or raising even more debt to fund capital improvement requirements, we should take a harder look at current revenue sources and the budget and find ways to improve efficiencies.
For example, every year for the past few years, the FICA (federal social security) payroll tax for city employees has been overstated. Although funds are carried to the next year, overfunding means that other services are not funded during the year. This is an easy fix.
We should also look at the types of revenue currently being booked and collect it to the best of our ability. For example, for the 12-month period ended March 31, the city waived $6.9 million in fines out of $7.9 million it assessed. That means that less than 15 percent of assessed fines were collected. That is both a missed revenue opportunity and a signal to those who are fined for breaking the law that our laws are not really enforced.
In addition, the entire real property tax system, which generates the greatest source of revenue for the city, should be reviewed and revised to be more equitable and simple.
In 2011 I served on the City Council’s Real Property Tax Advisory Commission which agreed to six criteria for good tax policy, emphasizing fairness and simplicity. Our current system continues to be neither. For example, property tax exemptions reduce revenues by over $100 million annually. By law, all properties are subject to annual assessment, but many are not assessed. Without current values, citizens are blind to the likely rising value of exemptions.
While certain wealthy groups continue enjoying generous exemptions, ordinary taxpayers, such as the elderly who were hard hit last year, close the gap.
We need to stop the waste and spend taxpayer money more wisely.
6. The City Council often has to sign off on important development decisions. Where do you stand on the development of Kakaako, transit-oriented development and the Envision Laie plan?
I support our planning process and the Oahu General Plan, provided that development oversight and regulation is comprehensive and uniformly applied. Since Kakaako is under HCDA jurisdiction, however, it has its own set of guidelines. I support the effort to allow the county to play a more active role in the HCDA to ensure that our community needs are considered.
The idea behind transit-oriented-development (TOD) is that mixed uses such as housing, office and retail and/or other amenities are combined into walkable neighborhoods within about a half-mile of quality public transportation. Plans are currently being put together for TOD areas on Oahu. Good planning and follow through with those plans is important.
Significant questions and concerns have been brought up regarding Envision Laie. Given these concerns and the focus on Kakaako and TOD, I do not support Envision Laie.
7. Local officials have become increasingly concerned that a long history of leaks at the Navy’s Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility, mauka of Pearl Harbor, could contaminate drinking water supplies. What steps do you think Navy and government officials should be taking to address the issue?
While the Navy, Board of Water Supply and the Mayor’s Office have stated that the water is safe, the “ongoing investigations” into the source of potential contamination could take as long as a year. An investigation expected to take that long doesn’t allow enough time to act if our ground water is indeed at risk, and the lack of transparency in reporting makes it impossible to determine how O’ahu residents may be affected; what steps should be taken to minimize potential contamination of the drinking water supply; and what proactive measures will be taken to prevent future incidents.
City and state government must both put significant pressure on the Navy to expedite their investigation or the results may be in after the damage is done.
8. What do you think of Mayor Kirk Caldwell? Is he doing a good job?
Like every mayor before him, Mr. Caldwell has inherited a pile of legacy problems. To his credit, he is attempting to address some long-ignored issues like a comprehensive program to address homelessness and repaving of major city streets and urban areas. Kudos to him for that.
9. Do you think details about police officer misconduct should be made public? If so, why?
I can see both sides. It’s important to remember any organization may have problems with its employees and a few isolated incidents of police misconduct do not necessarily reflect the overall quality of the Honolulu Police Department.
However, any criminal charges should be made public. If all disciplinary actions were made public, then that policy should be consistent and apply across the board, i.e., all government employees’ records should be open in a similar manner. I think disciplinary actions should be handled by the supervisors, the principals or other managers rather than potentially subject to public discussion and debate.
10. What other important issue would you like to discuss here?
The rail. It’s a “done deal,” and I think just about everyone will agree that taxpayer funds should be used wisely and efficiently. It’s therefore critical that HART effectively anticipate and manage risks to reduce cost overruns. While about a third of the cost will be federally funded, as costs rise, so does the proportional cost to local taxpayers. This project needs to be rigorously managed to avoid incurring further debt or tax increases, especially those due to waste.