Honolulu’s Office of Climate Change, Resilience and Sustainability hasn’t opened yet, but it’s already on the City Council’s chopping block.
The council’s Budget Committee axed $134,694 from the Caldwell administration’s request for $404,388 to fund seven positions in the office at a meeting Tuesday. Voters created the agency through a 2016 charter amendment.
Council members Kymberly Pine, Ernie Martin, Ann Kobayashi and Brandon Elefante all supported six-figure cuts to the agency’s budget.
“Your department is, sadly, going to be the first casualty,” Pine said. She recommended the office create partnerships with the University of Hawaii and the Hawaii Community Foundation.
Justin Gruenstein, an executive assistant to Mayor Kirk Caldwell, defended the proposed budget for the new office in vain. Meanwhile, directors of existing city departments assured the committee that their budgets were already stick-thin.
“This office is really, truly, as the mayor calls it lean and mean,” Gruenstein said of the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resilience. “We’ll be using used furniture, they’ll be using office supplies and equipment out of the managing director.”
Committee members considered a slew of cuts as they reviewed Caldwell’s proposed executive and capital budgets, as well as the legislative budget and the operating and capital budgets for the city’s $9.5 billion rail project.
Caldwell submitted a bill to the City Council on Tuesday that would allow property tax revenue to be used to help pay for the rail project, Hawaii News Now reported. Caldwell said property tax increases — possibly as high as 14 percent — might be needed. His proposal is scheduled for a first hearing with the City Council on April 26.
While Caldwell’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 looks to raise taxes and fees, the committee members hope to reduce city spending as they brace for the worst-case scenario for funding the 20-mile project.
“We need to start rolling up our sleeves,” Pine said, “and looking at the bare minimum of what it would take to run this city.”
As the committee members scoured the budget for areas to cut Tuesday, the state House passed a bill to extend for two years Oahu’s 0.5 percent surcharge on the general excise tax beyond its 2027 sunset date, many years short of what the mayor wanted.
Considering record tourist spending, Councilman Ikaika Anderson said, the mayor’s proposal to extend the GET surcharge is a better way to fund rail.
“Raising residential property taxes is not something we should be discussing at this point,” Anderson said. “There are other options out there.”
But raising property taxes continues to surface at council meetings in discussions about various budget measures.
In fact, Anderson himself suggested raising property taxes as an alternative to a bill to impose a trash pickup fee. The Budget Committee deferred that proposal last week.
Committee Chairman Joey Manahan said the city budget is still fluid, and dependent on what the Legislature does.
While the fledgling climate change office has already had its budget cut, most other departmental budgets made it through the meeting relatively unscathed. Manahan deferred most of the proposed cuts in the mayor’s capital and operating budgets, the legislative budget, and the operating and capital budget for the city’s rail project:
• Anderson earmarked $150,000 of the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resilience budget for a visitor census study in Waimanalo and Kailua. In her own earmark, Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga set aside $100,000 of the office’s budget to study the impacts of rising sea levels along Oahu coastlines.
• Both Martin and Manahan requested that $2 million from the Department of Budget and Fiscal Services be used to help businesses negatively impacted by rail construction. This is the second attempt by the council to help businesses affected by rail. Another $2 million appropriated two years ago ended up going to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, never making it to the businesses the funds were intended to help, Manahan said.
• The Department of Budget and Fiscal Services dodged a $234,564 cut proposed by Kobayashi. The cut would have removed four positions from the department. “Four people would lose their jobs,” said Nelson H. Koyanagi, the budget department’s director. “They are live bodies, they do work.”
• Mark Wong of the Department of Information Technology convinced the committee to defer five proposed cuts to his department, which would have totaled $1,862,553. One cut would have made the city’s operating systems vulnerable to hackers, he said. “We might as well shut down the city if we’re going to do that,” he said.
• None of the proposed cuts to the Honolulu Police Department made it past the committee Tuesday. Councilman Ron Menor asked that $300,000 of the department’s operating budget be used on the Weed and Seed Program. William Axt, assistant chief, said the earmark would restrict the department’s functions.
• Makiki Park won’t get the $300,000 requested by Fukunaga. Half of the funds would have gone to improving the park’s pool, which is currently only open for eight hours per week. The Patsy T. Mink Central Oahu Regional Park in Waipio will get funds for a new dog park, tennis court lighting and $100,000 designated “specifically for pickleball” courts, a budget amendment states.
“It’s going to be an awesome park,” Manahan said of the $5.49 million upgrades to the central Oahu park.
• The Caldwell administration wants $4.7 million to redesign Thomas Square in Kakaako. Plans for the park have stirred controversy among both community and council members. Some committee members wanted all $4.7 million axed, but the committee instead reduced the park’s redevelopment budget by $1.85 million.