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 Andria Tupola, candidate for Honolulu City Council District 1 representing Ewa, Ewa Beach, Kapolei, Honokai Hale, Ko Olina, Nanakuli, Maili, Waianae, Makaha, Keaau and Makua. The other candidates are Kathy Davenport, Naomi Hanohano, Galen Kerfoot and Anthony Paris.
1. Oahu’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?
Over the years, the transient accommodations tax has been growing exponentially and creating an engine for tourism and revenue for the state. In 1987 the tax was created and levied at 5%. In 1994 it was raised to 6%; 1999 it was raised to 7.25%; 2009 it was raised to 8.25%; 2010 it was raised to 9.25%; and in 2020 it is now 10.25%.
In 2009, the Legislature began exploring different avenues for increasing revenues to replace record shortfalls in the state budget, due to the Great Recession. Although the original distribution of the tax was to the counties, today it is distributed to counties, the convention center enterprise special fund, the tourism special fund, Turtle Bay conservation easement, and a special land and development fund to be spent by Hawaii Tourism Authority.
It’s clear that the state has been driving tourism as high as possible to cover debt, expenses and shortfalls. The only way the state will not rely on tourism as the main economic driver is if there is an economic engine built around another industry to help bring in revenue and if there is political will to decide on an industry that makes sense for Hawaii and do what it takes to support that industry.
Hawaii still has and will always have a window to support agriculture, farming, and ranching as one of its main industries. We have the land. We have the resources. But there doesn’t seem to be enough political willpower to make it happen.
2. As the economy struggles, the city 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 first thing any state or city agency should cut is waste. Look through the budget, set priorities, decide what we need versus what we want, and study it using an annual snapshot and then take a longitudinal look at trends.
Read through the auditors’ reports and see if the suggestions on fiscal accountability or departmental efficiency were applied. Potential new revenue can be found in many broken city facilities that need to be repaired and then turned over to the community for public use.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on Oahu?
I would have made a plan from day one. It would have timelines, simple language, three phases, links to access government resources, and information on how to access private resources. I would have established a small but effective communications team and re-evaluated the effectiveness of that communication team every day that the pandemic continued. I would have utilized the ocean barrier we have around our islands to our advantage and tested at the airport on day one instead of saying there was nothing that the state could do about travelers.
4. Oahu residents, government officials and developers have often been split over efforts to build new projects like renewable energy facilities, recreational complexes or even affordable housing. What would you do to make sure important projects are successful while respecting community input and concerns?
I believe projects have to show importance to the community. The community should not have to be coerced to see some type of benefit. It should be clear from the start why the project is helpful to the goals of the community.
The ideas for projects should come from the community and developers or project managers should study the needs of the community first before pursuing projects. The companies, developers and project managers should view community interaction as a benefit to their project instead of a deterrent. They should also be held accountable for their decisions and be available for community questions.
5. How should the city pay for the operation and maintenance of rail once it’s built? Do project plans or financing plans need to be changed as the economy struggles in the wake of the pandemic?
Mayor Caldwell recently stated the average cost to maintain the rail will be about $69 million a year but the current contract doesn’t cover an estimated $30-40 million a year in administrative and security staff, along with the energy used to power the trains. So the city needs to come up with the shortfall of money through creative rail projects, advertisements or other revenue generators.
The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation paid Kiewit alone $108 million in penalties to account for the various changes in plans. The audit of the rail showed $354 million was paid in change orders as of August 2017 which doesn’t include significant change penalties associated with a $1.39 billion contract for Ansaldo Honolulu JV. The city’s failure to adequately budget for moving electric power lines inflated costs further. Utility relocation costs jumped from $133 million to $391 million from 2012 to 2017. Yes the financing plans need to be changed, but HART should also consider changing parts of the project that can be modified to save costs and not just continuously changing the budget.
6. Homelessness remains a problem on Oahu. What would you do differently from what the current leadership is doing? Do you support the enforcement of laws targeted at unsheltered homeless people such as the sit-lie ban? Why or why not?
The last Point in Time Homeless Count for the island of Oahu showed that there are 4,448 individuals experiencing homelessness. The numbers barely changed from 2019 to 2020 which means something is not working, there are variables that haven’t been considered, the cost of living in Hawaii is growing, or policies have not shaped outcomes.
I believe the current vulnerability index score should include connectedness. There are individuals who continue to be homeless because they choose to disconnect from their own support systems and that has little to do with resources and everything to do with choices. This type of situation might require a council of resources and not just one social worker trying to solve 25 cases at once.
I successfully organized a council of support to address truancy and we have seen how complex problems could be solved with willing individuals who are surrounded by a council of individuals willing to listen, a board chair that is willing to hold the individual accountable, and a group that is willing to celebrate progress. I think that this would be a good solution to help those individuals that are in very complex cases.
7. 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. What should be done to improve policing and police accountability in Honolulu? Should oversight of the police department be strengthened or reformed?
I do not condone brutality, violence, racism or murder. Those are behaviors that are intolerable and those who engage in such behavior should be prosecuted in a court of law. We need to focus on what is happening here in Hawaii and how we can improve our situation.
On January 19, 2020, two Honolulu Police officers were shot and killed near Diamond Head while responding to a distress call that escalated very quickly.
The situations these officers have to walk into are unknown, unsafe and unpredictable. Robberies went up by 52% last year and a 20% increase of crimes involving firearms. We are grateful to those brave men and women who put their lives at risk for the safety of the community. These high level situations should only be handled by highly trained individuals and our job is to say something if we see something.
The former chief of police and others involved in acts of corruption were arrested and are now paying the consequences of their actions. We need this level of scrutiny and accountability for all those that use their position to hide crimes. Going forward, we must ensure the safety of the public and our officers.
8. Honolulu has some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation. Some see rail as part of the solution. What else should the city do to alleviate congestion?
It was very easily solved during COVID-19. People opted to work from home, schools were able to operate online, restaurants were delivering food. The stay at home/work at home mandate is unsustainable for every occupation and in every case. But we were able to see what a huge difference it made on our roadways to have some changes made to the way we work and commute.
9. 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 disagree with this action. There should be a higher level of transparency during pandemics and emergencies. The level of communication needs to be heightened to ensure that the general public is well informed and prepared. The public should be even more aware of what is going on and the government should want open records so they can learn from their successes and shortcomings.
I think the simplest thing that should be done now is to have all legislative meetings broadcast live for the public to watch. I believe that Olelo does some broadcasting. But now more than ever there is so much technology available and during COVID-19 we were able to increase our technological abilities.
10. What more should Honolulu be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
We should take a proactive approach to better understanding our local ecosystem and partner with Hawaiian agricultural practitioners to bring back some of what used to protect our island and its resources. There are many local organizations that work tirelessly to protect our environment and would make great partners for our local government to learn from and better understand how we can protect it.
11. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
One of the most pressing issues facing my district is traffic. It’s an issue we have battled with for the past decade. The west side of the island has many new houses and developments and is in constant need of traffic mitigation solutions. One of the easiest things the city can do is to regularly monitor the flow of traffic, and come up with solutions for problem areas that can alleviate traffic times and help residents return to be with their families.