The Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees is struggling to approve a new budget in the face of a major staff reorganization that has some employees and advocates worried workers could lose their jobs.

OHA is expecting to spend significantly more money on grants and less on personnel, contracts and promotional events and activities, according to its newest two-year budget.

While those policy changes seek to get more of OHA’s annual $49 million operating budget to the Native Hawaiian communities the office is meant to serve, there are still questions over how the proposed budget cuts will be accomplished.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs has proposed a budget that spends more money on grant programs. Screenshot

The OHA Board of Trustees was scheduled to talk about the proposed budget at a meeting that began at 10 a.m. Thursday morning. But the discussion was tabled after the board spent much of the meeting behind closed doors talking about the reorganization, selection of a development consultant and acquiring commercial property.

Trustees emerged from executive session at 2:30 p.m. and promptly adjourned the meeting with no discussion.

The trustees did not make any final decisions on the reorganization or any of the other items they took up during the private session, according to an OHA spokesman.

OHA’s operating budget is $49.1 million for fiscal year 2022, which begins July 1, and $46.9 million for the following fiscal year.

Those funds come from a mix of investments, ceded land revenues, state tax dollars and money generated from lands OHA owns in Kakaako.

In prior years, personnel and staff costs made up the bulk of OHA’s operating budget. This time, the largest tranche of funds will be for what OHA calls beneficiary and community investments.

The budget proposes doling out $15.2 million annually in various grants including $6 million for Hawaiian charter schools, $1.7 million in emergency financial assistance, $1 million in college scholarships and $1 million for the office’s Kulia grants program.

The office also contributes about $3 million annually to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. As of May, OHA has awarded $1.8 million in grant funds.

Reorganization Gets Push Back

But the increase in grant funding comes with cuts in other areas including personnel costs, contracts and program costs.

The proposed budget would allocate $13 million annually for salaries and fringe benefits, a $4 million cut from what the personnel budget was in fiscal years 2020 and 2021.

“Through a proposed restructuring, some positions will be created to provide increased direct beneficiary services, while other positions will be refocused on systemic policy change to improve Native Hawaiian conditions,” OHA’s budget presentation says.

Much of the discussion regarding the proposed staff reorganization has taken place in closed-door sessions of the board meetings. The board also used three hours of the executive session to take up the reorganization plan, among other business.

On Thursday morning, the board heard from people including several OHA employees who raised concerns over the proposed reorganization. Some were worried that the changes would mean the end for OHA’s compliance enforcement section, which often works with inadvertently uncovered iwi kupuna and has opposed certain construction projects on OHA’s behalf.

Kai Markell, OHA’s compliance manager, said the shakeup could throw OHA staff into disarray.

“OHA doesn’t need a change in staff, we need stability,” Markell said. “Now more than ever to build upon the foundation of what so many who have come and gone through these doors, who have given their health and even their lives.”

Board Chair Carmen Hulu Lindsey said that OHA doesn’t plan on getting rid of Markell or the compliance section.

“It’s a department that we consider very serious and very much a part of OHA, and we know what our employees have done in the different communities statewide,” she said.

During an April meeting of the board, OHA CEO Sylvia Hussey said that while divisions in OHA may be moved around, they should still have the same duties as they do now.

“Those functions and responsibilities don’t change our role to advocate, our role to research, to provide data, to have a strategic plan,” Hussey said. “So, none of those functions are eliminated, defunded, or anything. They are reorganized.”

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