HILO, Hawaii Island – Mayor Harry Kim is working on his second, pared-down attempt to get an apparently willing Legislature to help Hawaii County underwrite the massive cost of rebuilding lava-ravaged Puna.
“I think government will come through,” Kim said of the approximately $150 million disaster-relief package he’ll ask state lawmakers to approve during their upcoming session that starts in January.
That amount tops the combined $125 million the Legislature granted last session for recovery efforts on Kauai and Oahu after flooding caused extensive damage in mid-April.
But the $150 million in aid also is a relative bargain compared to Kim’s initial wish list that ballooned to $800 million in the months following the May eruption of the Kilauea volcano. The amount alarmed legislative leaders and left them unsatisfied with how it would be spent. No special session was convened to consider approving the emergency relief.
“(Legislators) were hamstrung by the increasing amount that was being bandied about by the (Kim) administration. Five-hundred million, $600 million and then $800 million – those are staggering amounts,” said Hawaii County Councilman Aaron Chung of Hilo, the council’s new chairman.
Noting the county has already received $22 million in disaster aid from the state, Chung said he’d like Hawaii taxpayers to provide at least another $20 million to $40 million.
“If we’re not able to get monies from the Legislature because of our own inaction, then yes, it falls on us,” he said.
Kim said he takes responsibility for an initial request that combined state assistance with federal aid, insurance reimbursements and other potential funding sources.
“Before, there was a lot of miscommunication on my part,” the mayor said.
House leadership was left “frustrated” when the Kim “administration went to the press” with its funding request before first asking the Legislature, said state Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, who represents Puna.
The miscommunication has continued with Kim aide Roy Takemoto releasing a draft aid request to a local newspaper before lawmakers got it. Nearly a week later, Kim spokeswoman Janet Snyder declined to provide a copy of the document, stating in an email, “ … we really need to wait till the Legislators have had a chance to look at the draft report.”
When lawmakers do get the request, they want it to be detailed.
“We are more than willing to help out, but they need to be specific because there are other needs,” San Buenaventura said.
How Hawaii County would use any state money was not explained clearly the first time around, she said.
“When we asked them about specifics, it was pretty vague,” San Buenaventura said.
Besides offering important details, the request also must be realistic, according to Chung.
“It can’t be $500 million or anything close to that amount,” he said. “They’re not going to listen.”
House leadership didn’t want to spend taxpayer money holding a special session this past summer because there was funding remaining from the Kauai and Oahu flood relief that Gov. David Ige could release through executive order, San Buenaventura said.
Ige did just that, providing $12 million during the disaster and then more recently another $10 million for recovery efforts. Hawaii County finance officials expect the money will cover eruption-related expenses through the fiscal year that ends next June 30.
As of Dec. 5, the county had used up $7.1 million, Finance Director Deanna Sako said in an email.
“The money was spent responding to the disaster,” Sako said. Expenses included paying public safety employees to work overtime, operating emergency shelters, housing non-county personnel who assisted with the response, conducting helicopter flights and performing emergency road repairs, Sako said.
What’s needed now is the reopening of key roads — provided it’s safe to do so — like Highway 132 between Pahoa and Kapoho, Chung said.
“We’ve got a lot of landlocked folks out there,” he said. “It’s not fair to them.”
Chung said he wants Kim’s administration to take the lobbying lead and had not seen its draft request within his first days of becoming chairman.
“Relief for Puna has to be the top priority,” Chung said, echoing his inauguration speech. “The bottom line is: We can’t wait. Whatever it takes, we have to do it because it’s wreaking havoc on a lot of families.”
It’s “imperative” Hawaii County builds trust with the Legislature, Chung said, adding he looks forward to working with Senate President Ron Kouchi, his personal friend of 20 years, along with Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, Ways and Means Committee chairman, House Speaker Scott Saiki and Finance Committee Chairwoman Rep. Sylvia Luke.
“We really appreciate all the courtesies that’s been extended to us,” he said.
Chung, Kim and others will now try to turn those courtesies into coins for the county.
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Jason Armstrong has reported extensively for both of Hawaii Island’s daily newspapers. He was a public information officer/grant writer for the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation from 2012 to 2016 and has lived in Hilo since 1987. Email Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org