Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 8 Primary Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.
The following came from Tim Richards, candidate for Hawaii County Council District 9 representing Mauna Lani Resort, Waikoloa Village, Puako, Waikii, portion of Waimea, Kamuela, Puukapu Farms, Puukapu Homesteads, Puukapu Village House Lots, Lualai, Puuopelu, Lalamilo, Waiaka, Kawaihae, Kohala Ranch, Mahukona, Hawi, Kapaau and Halaula. The other candidates are Philip Aiona and Ranae Keane.
1. Hawaii’s economy has been hard hit with the outbreak of the coronavirus and measures to prevent its spread, mainly because of the collapse of the tourism industry. Should we continue to rely largely on the visitor industry for economic vitality? What concrete steps would you take to bring tourism back? What else would you do to diversify the island’s economy?
The best estimate that I can put together is that our economy was approximately $8.5 billion 2 years ago. Last year in the post-volcanic eruption economic climate, we lost $1 billion of our economy, plus 4,000 jobs. Estimates also showed that tourism comprised approximately $3 billion of that economy or 40%. COVID-19 took that down to virtually zero.
We now have an opportunity to retool our economy, which includes tourism. I have long stated agriculture can be an economic driver for our county. We can blend tourism and agriculture to teach our society about agriculture and understand the importance of good public policy for ag producers. We need to support agriculture while generating tourism dollars. Break down the walls of “silo legislation and policy,” combining energy generation with agriculture, tapping into the big islands renewable portfolio of wind, photovoltaic, hydroelectric and geothermal.
We could generate hydrogen as renewable energy for export and supply power for value-adding to our agriculture industries. The result is economic stimulation and resiliency. My initiative of “Agriculture, Water, Energy; A Food Nexus” covers this in detail.
2. As the economy struggles, the county may have to cut expenses and seek new revenue sources. What would you cut? And what is an area where you see potential new revenue?
The initial proposed budget for 2020-2021 was $626 million. After the COVID-19 impact, the revised budget presented was down approximately 7% or $585 million. I do not believe this is enough. Participating in national calls and working with other jurisdictions, a seemingly consistent estimate is a reduction in revenues of 15 to 20%. Our state government budget is projecting an approximate 15% shortfall. ($2.3 billion short on a $15.5 billion budget).
I pushed for seeking another 8%-plus in cuts to the budget to be cautious next year. I planned to defund capital improvement for mass transit, decreasing another $14 million from our budget. Fortuitously, we had just received federal funding to purchase buses, so that aspect was addressed. Mass transit shelters etc. would be delayed but could be reappropriated if funding became available. This cut could have been a win-win workable cash flow management tool, but not enough council members supported my initiative.
As to increasing revenue sources? Over two-thirds of the county income stream is real property tax. State appropriation next year is severely reduced. I firmly believe that a thriving economy will fund our needs at current tax rates; a strong economy means greater tax revenue. We must focus here.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on the Big Island?
As a man of science and data, I agree with the stay-at-home order. I would have preferred to see it implemented sooner. Then planned a methodical reopening to steward our economy forward. The communications early in COVID-19 were lacking at best; I would have handled communications differently. We need a cohesive, user-friendly communications strategy in place for the county that informs and communicates to the community.
I have battled the County information, technology, and communications issues this past term. To the point, I have given up and created a solution for District 9 that circumvents the obstacles in the county system. I realize it will not cure all communications issues, such as the gap between the mayor’s office and the council, but it’s at least a better beginning.
4. State and county residents, government officials and developers have been split over efforts to build the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. Do you support construction of the TMT? Do you support the protesters? What would you have done differently in the past year to resolve the issue?
I firmly support TMT going forward. I also believe there is a way forward for all. For any decision, I try to look at it from the environmental, cultural and economic perspectives. From a cultural perspective, I can think of no better way to honor the ancient navigators then to study the stars. Astronomy and the quest for the knowledge that that brings cannot be overstated. Our navigators knew this, and that is why they are held with such revere.
The telescopes are environmentally friendly and clean, with a limited impact on the environment. Some allegations of dangerous environment ramifications have been alleged but are not real. Economically the benefits are unquestionable. Currently, TMT is donating $1 million a year toward education. The revised projections for the economic impact on our county are approximately $2 billion.
With our economy currently in shambles, this would help to rekindle the economic generation that we need by supplying the resources to start developing jobs, affordable housing and an opportunity and future for the next generation. The TMT project has been vetted and found lawful to proceed as it should.
TMT moving forward does not take away from the valid concerns about portions of Mauna Kea management, which has been severely wanting in the past. Now it’s at the forefront and is being addressed. I firmly believe that all parties need to be at the table to go forward. Concerns must be heard, and solutions sought by seeking middle ground.
5. Homelessness remains a problem statewide, including on Hawaii island. What would you do to come to grips on this persistent problem?
Solving homelessness in Hawaii begins with the political will to deal with the problem and then make the resources available. Lt. Gov. Josh Green found that by “just” housing our homeless, we could decrease the impact on our medical system by $300 million a year. If we put even half of that into sheltering the homeless, we would make great strides in improving the overall reduction of homelessness.
Figuring out how to apply the health care savings to this is part of the challenge. We know our homelessness is not an isolated problem; it’s the symptom of a more significant issue: affordability —Hawaii’s cost of living is atrocious. We have working families that are homeless; access to affordable housing is critical.
The county and state governments need to embrace and support, not obstruct. For the unemployed and homeless, the government must find housing solutions and economic drivers to create jobs; again, county and state initiatives needed. There is also a demographic that is unwilling to receive help or have social/psychological challenges. To reiterate, this will take committing resources to our social service sector to address their needs.
6. Recent deaths of citizens at the hands of police are igniting protests and calls for reform across the country, primarily aimed at preventing discrimination against people of color. Do you see this issue as a problem in Hawaii County? What should be done to improve policing and police accountability on the Big Island? Should oversight of the police department be strengthened or reformed?
The civil unrest awakened by George Floyd’s death highlights systematic problems in law enforcement structures across the nation. I do not see that as a Hawaii County Police Department systemwide culture. On the contrary, I believe our police department tries to be sensitive to the needs of our patchwork of communities and cultures. It is not perfect, but programs like the community police officer take steps in developing relationships with the district.
Our biggest challenge is resources. Law enforcement is one aspect of the job, yet much of it deals with social issues. I do not believe we have enough training and support staff. Our county is vast, and we are spread thin. Our officers/1,000 people are on par with national averages, but our island’s extensiveness is not reflected. As to oversight and accountability, measures are in place and strengthened. Body cameras for our officers will help, but we must have the resources to be able to afford them. Modernization, including more training, could be very helpful to advance our police officers, but this must be tempered with sufficient resources to support their current day-to-day needs.
7. Hawaii’s public records law mandates that public records be made available whenever possible. Gov. David Ige suspended the open government laws under an emergency order during the pandemic. Do you agree or disagree with his action? What would you do to ensure the public has access to open meetings and public records in a timely fashion?
I completely agree with the action of suspending some of the Sunshine Laws in the time of crisis as decisions need to be made very quickly and delaying them because of procedural protocols could be worse for the public. That said, once the immediate crisis is over, the re-establishment of the protocols is essential. Retrospectively, all of the decisions can be reviewed afterward for their validity.
It will come down to opinions. In a time of crisis, we, as a society, must have a level of trust for our elected officials in trying to make the right decisions promptly. The declarations of an emergency are rare, and most are well warranted when used. There will always be a concern for abuse of power and circumventing procedures. Still, in times of crisis, I firmly believe that the public who elected our government officials trust that the best decisions are being made expediently.
8. What more should Hawaii County be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
Hawaii County is taking steps toward this in our planning department and looking at what the encroachment of the ocean may be over time. Additionally, taking the steps toward carbon-neutral energy sources for our county, state and then globally is part of our contribution to the effort. Furthermore, dealing with our wastewater on the coastlines that affect our nearshore waters also must be considered.
Finally, our plan for solid waste management is critical. Last fall, I sponsored and got approved a resolution for our environmental management and Environmental Management Commission that gave them the authority to start with a blank sheet of paper and be creative with potential solutions. The idea was not to get hung up on funding yet but to come up with ideas. My expectation is we will see that sometime in the next six to 12 months, COVID-19 delays aside.
9. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Hawaii. Be innovative, but be specific.
Self-reliance. Food, energy and our economy. Each of these is unique, but as I have alluded to previously, if we combined these, we take great strides in starting to attain our goals of self-sufficiency. By breaking down the walls of “silo legislation and policy,” combining energy generation with agriculture and water management while tapping into the Big Island’s renewable portfolio of wind, photovoltaic, hydroelectric and geothermal, we start seeking synergy. My initiative of “Agriculture, Water, Energy; A Food Nexus” covers this in detail.
Additionally, we could generate hydrogen for renewable energy storage for export and supply energy for value-adding to our agricultural industries. The results in linking these are economic development, job creation, food security, renewable energy generation and resiliency. We create economies that support our community going forward and give our young people a potential future.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The economy. We lost 40% of it with the COVID-19 economic shutdown when we lost all of tourism. Unemployment is staggering, And unemployment benefits and support are running out. People are out of work with no cash flow and need to be able to afford the basics; food, rent, health care.
My platform is simple but consistent — agriculture and affordable housing, with the overarching concern for the economy. I firmly believe agriculture can be part of our retooling and reawakening of our economy if we have a good public policy to support it. We, as the government need to invest in our young people’s future specifically as it pertains to economic opportunity and housing. We need to do this.
Before us is a rare opportunity to redesign and retool our economy as a whole. By combining planning and agriculture, energy generation, tourism, environmental concerns, and then linking them, I firmly believe we can do the paradigm shifts needed and “pivot “for Hawaii’s future.