Honolulu City Council members are aiming to eliminate a broad array of budget increases Mayor Kirk Caldwell had requested before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted daily life and devastated the international economy.

In proposed amendments to Caldwell’s $2.98 billion budget bill, council members took a red pen to the mayor’s wish list.

Travel to conferences? Unnecessary, said Budget Chair Joey Manahan.

Over $43 million for the Blaisdell Center? Absolutely not, several members said.

“We need to get back to basics and figure out what we can do to manage the city’s budget without having any inflated costs,” Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi said.

Honolulu City Council Member Heidi Tsuneyoshi listen to public testimony.

Honolulu City Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi said COVID-19 will force the city to be more fiscally conservative.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Councilwoman Kymberly Pine and Tsuneyoshi struck out nearly every increase Caldwell’s administration asked for. COVID-19 concerns led to the cancellation of most of the city’s budget presentations earlier this month in which department heads justify increases to council members. Until city directors explain their requests at next month’s council meeting, the councilwomen said they needed to say no to everything.

“I cut every new item that they put in,” Pine said. “They can explain, and then we can think about it.” 

Tsuneyoshi said she has major questions about funding requests from the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation and the Department of Transportation Services. The agencies had asked for major increases in anticipation of an opening date for Honolulu’s rail line later this year.

“Right now, we’ve had to reassess everything because a lot has changed,” she said.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment. City officials have stated they don’t believe city revenue will take much of a hit from the virus. Unlike the state, whose revenue relies on a robust tourism industry that has vanished almost overnight, the city gets most of its money from property taxes.

Pine is proposing a major relief package for addressing housing and homelessness during the pandemic and beyond. It includes:

  • $71 million in capital funds to develop housing and homeless service centers.
  • $15 million added to the Department of Community Services budget for homeless initiatives – a move that would more than double the department’s spending in that area.
  • $1.5 million for the Department of Emergency Management to address emergency provisions, shelter and quarantine facilities.
  • $100,000 for the Department of Land Management to hire a consultant who will identify vacant city lands that can be used for rapid rehousing and transitional shelters for people suffering the impacts of mental illness, addiction or the pandemic.

We have to prepare for the worst-case scenario,” Pine said.

While devastating, the pandemic creates an opportunity to solve the homelessness problem that has plagued Oahu for years, Pine said.

Honolulu City Council Member Kymberly Pine before recess. Bill 89 and 85.

Councilwoman Kym Pine, a mayoral candidate, is proposing millions in new spending related to housing, mental health and the pandemic.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

She wants to immediately develop 6,000 tiny homes that could be used to house homeless people to contain the spread of COVID-19 and also quarantine others who may have the virus and want to isolate themselves from their families. The plan would require state and federal coordination, she said. After the pandemic clears, the homes would then be available as affordable housing for the homeless and the greater public.

She hopes the effort would be funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The city’s rainy day fund, recently made available for public health crises, could also be used if needed.

“We have an ability to actually fix everything right now that we wished we could’ve fixed before but we just didn’t have the money to do it,” she said.

She added that if the city could relax zoning laws during the pandemic, medical workers could put temporary tiny homes on their properties to isolate them from their families.

“Many are now worried about spreading the virus to their families,” Pine said.

Council members proposed other budget additions, mostly smaller projects like park and road improvements for their districts. They will discuss the amendments at their next meeting scheduled for April 15.

Before you go . . .

Everyone at Civil Beat feels the weight of heightened responsibility. For the past several months our nonprofit newsroom has worked beyond our normal capacity to provide accurate information, push for accountability, amplify smart ideas and new voices, and double down on facts and context to write deeply reported local stories.

The truth is, our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.

Reader support keeps our small newsroom afloat. If you value the work of our journalists, please consider making a tax-deductible gift.

About the Author