The concerned call came from a woman in Kailua.

She had heard that Honolulu property taxes could be increased to pay for the over-budget rail project.

In the caller’s view, such a development would drive senior citizens out of their homes and maybe out of Hawaii. Most are living on a fixed income.

Would Mayor Kirk Caldwell or challenger Charles Djou raise property taxes if elected mayor?

At an AARP Hawaii “tele-town hall” held Saturday morning, both candidates said they would not.

“No, period,” said Djou, who used the question to criticize for the umpteenth time Caldwell’s “mismanagement” of the rail “mess.”

Charles DJou and Kirk Caldwell listen to questions over speaker phone during AARP Hawaii's tele-town hall debate.
Charles Djou and Kirk Caldwell listen to questions over speaker phone during AARP Hawaii’s tele-town hall debate in downtown Honolulu. Anthony Quintano / Civil Beat

He also reminded the caller, AARP members and anyone else tuning in that Caldwell had once told the state Legislature that property taxes would have to be raised 33 percent to 43 percent to pay for rail.

Djou said he has a long record of opposing tax hikes. With recent cost overruns — the project is now pegged at $8.6 billion and is $1.8 billion short of what’s needed to complete the full rail route — a property tax increase would be more in the range of 60 percent to 70 percent, he said.

But Caldwell made clear that he couldn’t raise property taxes to pay for rail even if he wanted to. (And he emphatically does not.) A 2010 law stipulates that only general excise taxes and federal funding can be used for the project.

Caldwell’s comment about property taxes came only in the context of answering lawmakers’ questions about property taxes — in other words, to understand what limited revenue options the city has. It was part of Caldwell’s ultimately successful efforts to get the state to extend the GET surcharge on Oahu.

“It’s time to stop scaring people,” said Caldwell.

AARP organizers take questions from Oahu residents for the Honolulu mayoral candidates.
AARP organizers took questions from Oahu residents for the Honolulu mayoral candidates. Anthony Quintano / Civil Beat

The debate over property taxes between Caldwell, a former acting mayor, city managing director and state legislator, and Djou, a former congressman, City Council member and state legislator, was not a new one.

But the audience on Saturday represented the most important voter bloc on the island: kupuna. As Barbara Kim Stanton, AARP Hawaii’s state director, explained before the tele-town hall, the nonpartisan group has more than 150,000 members.

To put that into electoral perspective, that’s roughly the same number of votes Caldwell, Djou and former mayor Peter Carlisle took in the Aug. 13 primary — combined.

Members of AARP (and it’s just AARP now; members no longer have to be American or retired) are also better educated and more active in their community compared to other groups, said Stanton.

“They overwhelmingly vote, probably the highest of all,” she said.

Kirk Caldwell and Charles Djou shake hands before starting AARP Hawaii's tele-town hall. Saturday, October 1, 2016
Kirk Caldwell and Charles Djou shook hands before starting the tele-town hall. Anthony Quintano / Civil Beat

Caldwell and Djou know that. That’s why they trucked up to the AARP’s 19th floor offices downtown on Saturday morning to take questions from Stanton and callers.

The candidates, who do not seem to like each other much, were on their best behavior, as if debating before their own grandmothers. Caldwell even offered a joke before things got started: What’s the difference between a lawyer and a catfish?

Djou himself provided the answer: One is a scum-sucker, the other is a fish.

Funny, given that both men are attorneys by training. All the AARP people in red T-shirts laughed.

On to the questions: Of the 12 asked, one-third had to do with cost of living.

In addition to the property tax question, the candidates were queried about affordable housing and the fact that rental costs averaging $1,500 a month and home prices averaging $760,000.

Solutions varied, but Caldwell cited recent passage of the allowance of accessory dwelling units on home properties (he called it “a game-changer”). He also said he had worked with the City Council to increase the dollar amount for home-owner exemptions.

Djou called for simplifying the tax code and for fixing the city’s “gross mismanagement” of city funds for affordable housing.

Rail came up — of course — and both men repeated their essential positions.

Djou: Caldwell promised to build rail better, he didn’t, so it’s time for a change in leadership.

Caldwell: Djou always blames and complains but does not offer solutions like the mayor has, e.g., seeking other revenue sources.

Public safety was also on the minds of AARP Hawaii folks, especially road rage and pedestrian fatalities. Both candidates said better traffic light synchronization could help, as well as better enforcement of existing laws.

Hawaii Elections Guide 2016

Djou went further, calling the King Street bike lane a mistake but also calling for a race course somewhere on the island so young people can drive fast somewhere else besides city streets. But Caldwell reminded AARP that he had supported nearly every proposal from the group when it came to improving safety.

“Barbara, we have walked that path together,” he said.

Here’s a couple of other items:

  • Djou said his greatest accomplishment was pushing for curbside recycling, something that once seemed undoable but is now standard practice.
  • Caldwell said repaving roads and fixing sewers isn’t “sexy,” but it has to be done. He thinks his administration has done exactly that.
You can watch the full debate here

It may be one of the last times to compare the mayoral candidates side by side, as KITV and Hawaii News Now won’t be broadcasting TV debates and KHON isn’t sure.

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