KAILUA-KONA – Big Island first responders are in need of help themselves.

A revenue shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is requiring the Hawaii Fire Department to eliminate any requests for training programs, maintenance upgrades or new equipment.

It’s also jeopardized funding for lifeguards at Hapuna Beach — a popular North Hawaii destination that consistently cracks Best Beaches lists in publications around the world — although officials say they’re working to secure state money to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Lawmakers will try and nail down that funding when the Legislature reconvenes in the coming weeks to revise the state budget that has been hammered by the pandemic. It could come in the form of CARES funding from the federal government. The state notified the county two weeks ago that it was pulling the funding because of the loss of revenue, leaving local leaders scrambling.

Beachgoers walk past a lifeguard station at Magic Sands beach in Kailua-Kona on Saturday. Budget shortfalls have required state and county officials to get creative to fund several lifeguard positions on the Big Island, as well as to fill other Hawaii Fire Department needs.

Tom Hasslinger

“I will need to figure out if there is any way to find money for Hapuna lifeguards in a budget that is being cut right and left because of the COVID-19 economic crash,” said Rep. David Tarnas, North Hawaii, whose district includes the state park. “People in my district want to be able to go to Hapuna beach to sit on the sand, gather with family and friends to talk story and eat, walk, run, play in the water, swim and surf.”

The economic crash Tarnas referenced also hit the Hawaii County budget hard, which is the primary funder for the Fire Department and its Ocean Rescue Division.

The department is cutting $42,659 out of its budget this year.

The figure represents less than 1% of its $49 million operating budget, so services shouldn’t be affected negatively, Fire Chief Darren Rosario pointed out. And no matter what the state decides, the county is committed to keeping personnel at Hapuna, so the lifeguard towers aren’t in danger of closing.

Nor are the lifeguards in danger of going away at North Kona’s popular Kua Bay, another beach that was initially targeted as a place the state would defund.

Officials promised that money will be secured to keep those towers afloat, too.

“A commitment has been made to fund those positions,” Hawaii Mayor Harry Kim said.

A caveat, however, is that CARES funding, should it be used, could expire by the end of the year, meaning a longer-term fix would be required.

Nevertheless, Kim said, “it’ll give us time to work it out.”

But in the immediate future, the county budget cuts mean the fire department will have do without equipment additions, as well as forgo a number of training programs – at least at the county’s expense.

To fill that hole, the department turned to its old ally, the Daniel R. Sayre Memorial Foundation. The Big Island nonprofit has been raising supplies and money for first responders for the last two-and-a-half decades. The Fire Department asked the Foundation for more than $600,000 worth of equipment this year.

The problem is the foundation, which has gifted $3.5 million worth of equipment in its 23 years, has been hit hard by the pandemic, too. It doesn’t know how much it can give this year.

“My stomach just did a flip,” said Laura Mallory-Sayre, who co-founded the nonprofit with her husband Frank Sayre, when she saw the department’s wish list. “I feel obligated. I feel personally obligated to do as much as I can … It’s just a little daunting.”

The list shows more than 40 itemized needs. Those range from replacing an old lifeguard tower, fire ladder truck training, to new SCUBA equipment and a pair of $7,500 Honda Rancher ATV vehicles so responders can better access rough terrain.

The $634,000 request nearly matches the Foundation’s entire budget last year.

“It’s the biggest one ever, by far, by far, and it’s not even close,” Mallory-Sayre said of the request, which is exacerbated by the fact that the department’s budget for capital expenditures, training and maintenance has been reduced in recent years already. “How do you not fund your essential services?”

“I’m flummoxed by the whole process, to be honest,” she added.

Kim defended the Fire Department’s financial allotments, saying mandated contributions to the state pension plans always account for increases, which must be budgeted around.

Mallory-Sayre said they’ll try and fulfill as much of the department’s wish list as they can. But the Foundation’s fundraising is sure to take a big hit, as its annual awards ceremony and fundraising gala will likely be cancelled this year because of the pandemic and its fallout. The event is typically held over Labor Day weekend.

“I don’t know how far we can get through this list, at least this year,” she said.

But the fire department’s situation could be much worse, the chief said.

The pandemic has affected every government agency. The department originally was instructed to trim 5-10% from its budget, before Mayor Harry Kim’s revised budget only called for the $42,000 haircut. It won’t affect the roughly 425 positions in the department.

The county’s $585.1 million 2021 fiscal plan, meanwhile, is 6.5% less than the original, pre-pandemic proposal that came out in early March. It’s 0.1% lower than the current year and goes into effect July 1.

“There is no hazard to public safety due to the budget situation of the County of Hawaii,” Rosario said.

He added that the department doesn’t expect the foundation to fulfill its entire request, rather the submittal was just a guide should any donors be interested in helping, as they have in years past. He called the foundation “a blessing to the fire department’s Fire, EMS, and Ocean Safety Divisions by providing much needed equipment in times of funding shortfalls.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic will have a direct relationship to everyone’s ability to assist and the department respects the situation we are all in,” he said.

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