Kirk Caldwell’s final budget proposal as Honolulu mayor does not include a tax increase but contains some high-cost initiatives including $71.3 million to kick off rail operations, more than $700 million for the Sand Island Waste Water Treatment Plant and the addition of 95 police department positions.

The administration’s package includes $750,000 to study climate change impacts and develop mitigation efforts, several million to continue existing homelessness programs and 23 positions for lifeguards to work on Oahu’s beaches from dawn to dusk.

“We’re spending more where we need to but we’re also controlling costs,” Caldwell said at a Tuesday press conference.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell speaks during joint WAM FInance Meeting 2020.
Fees for certain services will go up, but property taxes will not, Mayor Kirk Caldwell says. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The proposed operating budget of $2.98 billion is 5.1% higher than last year’s budget of $2.83 billion. The proposed capital budget is approximately $1.27 billion, an 8.7% increase over last year’s $1.17 billion.

While property taxes won’t budge under Caldwell’s plan, the mayor expects to net over $3 million from increased permit fees at the Department of Planning and Permitting and higher fees to play at city golf courses.

Much of the new spending is transportation-related. That includes funding to pay the contractor that will operate the rail which is scheduled to start running in December (although Caldwell has expressed skepticism about the timeline).

The mayor wants to increase operating costs for bus and Handi-van services by $17.4 million for a total of just under $300 million. That includes bus service enhancements to integrate bus and rail lines and improve routes and schedules. It also accounts for $1.1 million for additional Handi-van service to meet a growing demand for paratransit.

The capital improvement budget includes $5 million to develop the Ala Moana Transit Plaza, which the proposal says will be an “iconic rail station.”

Under Caldwell’s proposal, the Department of Transportation Services would gain 14 positions for rail operations and revenue enhancement, and the Department of Facility Maintenance would get 13 positions for rail maintenance.

Caldwell also wants to continue his mission to repave as many city roads as possible. His administration met its goal of repaving 1,500 lane miles in 2017, but the work continues. He’s asking for $50 million in capital funds to rehabilitate city streets plus additional funds to widen Salt Lake Boulevard.

One big-ticket item the city can’t avoid is $765 million to fund wastewater and global consent decree projects. It’s needed to fund the Sand Island Waste Water Treatment Plant’s secondary treatment project, a major requirement under a federal consent decree, according to the proposal.

For parks, the proposal includes $27.4 million for capital improvements; $3 million for Kakou for Parks, the city’s initiative to restore comfort stations and refurbish playgrounds; $650,000 for tree planting; and $3.2 million for security, including at Haiku Stairs, which the city plans to take over.

Regarding climate change – “the issue of our time,” according to the mayor – Caldwell’s budget includes $75,000 for a coastal lands study, $150,000 for “energy benchmarking” and $500,000 for the development of design and construction standards to mitigate the impact of climate change and sea level rise. The mayor’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resilience would gain five positions.

The capital budget proposal lists $11.2 million for the electrification of transportation infrastructure, $1.8 million for energy conservation improvements, $15 million for H-POWER (Honolulu Program of Waste Energy Recovery) conversion technologies and $8.3 million for other H-POWER improvements.

The mayor plans to extend funding for existing programs that address homelessness, one of the islands “most visible challenges,” the proposal says. That means $8.1 million – including state funds – for the continuation of the successful Housing First program, $894,432 for housing vouchers, $1.5 million for services related to the Hale Mauliola Housing Navigation Center at Sand Island and $1 million for services at the Punawai Rest Stop in Iwilei.

“We want to make sure that we’re not impacting the cost of living for the residents of the City and County of Honolulu.” City Council Budget Chair Joey Manahan 

Another $1.2 million will go toward landlord engagement, outreach and other efforts “to help with the housing, transporting, and treatment of Honolulu’s chronically homeless population.” The Department of Community Services would also get 13 new contract positions to support the Homeless Outreach and Navigation for the Unsheltered program, or HONU.

In the police department, the mayor wants to add 95 new positions and reactivate six vacant positions without funding. Sixteen positions would be civilian jobs to relieve officers of administrative duties, and 13 officers within the chief’s office would be assigned to the Health Efficiency and Long-term Planning, or HELP, unit which aims to provide a compassionate response to homeless people.

The Emergency Services Department would gain 36.75 positions – 13.25 for added emergency medical services, a half-time position for a contract physician and 23 positions for expanded lifeguard service hours.

At the Honolulu Ethics Commission, Caldwell’s proposal calls for three added positions – an administrative assistant, a training specialist and an investigator – “to address training, backlogs, and meet program mandates.”

Councilwoman Kymberly Pine said in a statement that she applauds the mayor’s effort to increase staffing for police, emergency services and ocean safety and to pave the island’s roads. However, she said funds are needed to prepare for the possible impacts of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.

“A decline in tourism revenue could significantly affect our economy,” she said.

She indicated more could be done to address homelessness on Oahu, which contributes to the state’s ranking as No. 2 in the nation for homelessness per capita.

“We also have a significant shortage of mental health and rehabilitation facilities and services directly related to our increasing houseless populations,” she said.

At the press conference, City Council Budget Chair Joey Manahan spoke in support of the budget proposal.

“We want to make sure that we’re not impacting the cost of living for the residents of the City and County of Honolulu,” he said. 

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