KEKAHA, Kauai — Everyone calls her Grandma Lei. Even her license plate totes the moniker, one that Laorinda Cano wears proudly in her Kekaha neighborhood. She grew up in Waianae on Oahu’s west side but moved to Kauai in 1979 when she was awarded a Hawaiian homestead.
“I love Kekaha because it’s a lot like Waianae,” Cano said. “We love our neighbors. We all get along.”
Besides both being on the west side of their respective islands, Kekaha and Waianae also host each island’s only landfills.
The difference? Kekaha nonprofits receive money every year for hosting the public utility. The Kekaha Host Community Benefit Fund was founded in 2008 to “balance the need for safe disposal of solid waste with the sacrifices borne by the host community.” Since 2012, the fund has given out almost $3 million to pay for everything from solar panels and student trips to community gardens and supplies for local food banks.
As Oahu prepares to pick a location for its next landfill, Honolulu’s Landfill Advisory Committee said it will consider creating a benefit fund for the host community. The committee, appointed by the mayor, has until Dec. 31 to recommend a location. Two large swaths on the North Shore are up for consideration, as is a site near Wheeler Army Airfield and another between the hills of Makakilo and Kunia.
While Kekaha’s program has been a success and can serve as a model for Oahu, Kauai County officials and community leaders say there are plenty of pitfalls.
Mel Rapozo was at a conference on the mainland when he first heard about the concept of community benefit funds. In the early 2000s, communities across the U.S. started asking municipalities and corporations to set aside money for them in exchange for hosting large developments, landfills, sewage treatment plants and other controversial or undesirable projects.
“Some people call it bribery but it’s really entitlement,” said Rapozo, who was a Kauai County Council member at the time. “The city has to understand that it is not something that people want in their backyard. I mean, I wouldn’t want one, but it has to be built.”
When Rapozo first brought the idea to the council, he remembers everyone being supportive, but with many government projects, there were concerns about the cost.
“In the first proposal the compensation was pretty insulting, like $50,000,” he said. “And I was pretty adamant that this fund couldn’t just be a gesture so I proposed a million dollars.”
The council settled on a $650,000 budget for the first year. Since 2009, the fund has been replenished every year by a percentage of the landfill’s tipping fee.
Rapozo was initially hoping that anyone living in Kekaha would be eligible to apply for funds, but for transparency and accounting purposes, the city decided to only allow local nonprofits to apply.
Kauai County hired a professional facilitator to help applicants with paperwork and to ensure the advisory board is complying with transparency laws. Besides that, the only stipulation was the money must benefit Kekaha residents in some way.
Kauai’s approach differs from Oahu’s. In 2006, Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s administration created a $2 million benefits package for people living near the Waimanalo Gulch landfill. Half went to the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation and the other half to the city’s Department of Community Services. While the money was spent within the community and projects were recommended by community members, it wasn’t community-led.
Rapozo said it’s natural for elected officials and government employees to try to get the most value possible out of any taxpayer-funded project, but the advice he gives to any municipality considering a benefit fund: step aside.
“It’s vital that the city or county cannot use this as a tool to fund their priorities,” Rapozo said. “If the community wants to build a swimming pool … or a statue of Jose Bulatao … there’s got to be a willingness to allow that freedom.”
In 2012 the Kekaha community surprised many people by deciding to use the bulk of its funds on a single project: solar.
“It was a large undertaking,” said Yvonne Hosaka, the fund’s facilitator.
A local nonprofit, E Ola Mau, oversaw the logistics and volunteers went door-to-door to talk to residents about their options. There were dozens of community meetings and the Kauai County Council even met to discuss the large scope of the project.
The fund’s Citizens Advisory Committee decided that only owner-occupied homes should be eligible and created a priority system based on how long the applicant lived in Kekaha and financial need. In the end, it cost $780,000 to install solar systems on 181 houses.
For Cano, it was transformational. Cano said the first month she had the system, the local electric company actually cut her an $800 check for excess electricity production.
She said it was extremely helpful when her late husband was ill and needed an oxygen pump at home. Most months her electricity bill is between $6 and $22, which she says is a miracle considering her home is a family gathering place and her grandchildren love to play music and video games at all hours.
“I’m appreciative and grateful for the solar,” she said.
Kauai has the only electric cooperative in the state, which streamlined the Kekaha solar project, said Hawaii Senate President Ron Kouchi. Kouchi grew up on the west side of Kauai and served as a director of the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative in the early 2000s.
“We had a willing utility and a community group that showed it has the financial fitness and expertise to run the utility,” Kouchi said. “That’s a barrier on any other island.”
Even in Kekaha, replicating the success of the 2013 solar project remains out of reach. Hosaka, the fund’s facilitator, said a lot of people in the community want another round of solar, but the high cost of the project, competing interests and an absence of a nonprofit willing to take on the herculean task makes it unlikely.
The Citizens Advisory Committee doesn’t propose projects or organize the logistics. It only approves or denies grants and ensures the money is being used fairly.
Thomas Nizo, the committee’s vice chair, said this means the fund is constrained by its applications.
“We don’t have sidewalks in Kekaha and there’s some other big projects that would require county support … but you need a nonprofit to propose it,” he said.
But funding a large number of small-scale projects has gone a long way in building community trust. The money has allowed local sports teams to travel to competitions, paid for community celebrations and even sponsors a chess club.
Hosaka, the fund’s facilitator, said 99% of the applications are approved because she works closely with the applicant to create a realistic budget before the nonprofit submits a request.
The committee aims to deliver 90% of the funds within 60 days of the project being approved, and Hosaka said most nonprofits hear back about the status of their application within 90 days.
Tony Ricci, the committee chair, said this level of responsiveness is essential for the project’s success.
“Some big-scale citywide, statewide, nationwide projects have too many hands in the cookie jars and too much bureaucracy,” he said.
Ricci likes to work closely with applicants on their ideas. He’s most proud of the Kekaha Scholarship Project, which started with a proposal to help high-performing students pay for college.
“The kids who have A’s and B’s can find other scholarships,” he said. “We need a program for other students in Kekaha.”
The revamped scholarship program helps local students attend community college or a trade program. And you don’t have to be a high school senior to apply.
“The idea was to let you see what it’s like after high school and real life comes on,” he said. “We wanted there to be more leniency so after two years there’s still this opportunity for you.”
In response to the pandemic, the committee also decided to start fast-tracking any proposal under $10,000. When a local food bank requested $25,000 for a large-scale food drive, Ricci worked with it to divide up each application into smaller requests so it could start handing out food within the week.
“I’m an advocate for helping people with their proposals,” he said. “Let’s have a conversation about what it will take to get to yes.”
Ricci acknowledged that this kind of hands-on, back-and-forth approach with the applicants has raised questions about objectivity. And in a community as small as Kekaha, there is going to be overlap between those benefiting from the program and those making the decisions.
There were committee members who received solar panels or had family members and children aided by other projects. Most recently the historic Waimea Theater, which is run by Nizo, received money to help keep its doors open during the pandemic. He wasn’t involved in any decisions related to his application, but still worried about the optics.
But Ricci said the benefit of a tight-knit community is that if there were rumors of favoritism, the word would travel fast.
“Everyone knows everyone,” he said.
In fact, Ricci doesn’t think the community-benefit model would work in a larger area. He said it’s difficult enough for Kekaha to decide between competing priorities.
“I feel small communities work better because you’re more in touch with your neighbors,” he said. “If you’re going to do this you have to be very specific about the community that’s directly impacted by the landfill or wastewater plant or whatever it might be.”
Ricci is the president of the Kauai Raceway Park, which sits directly next to the landfill. Twenty years ago, the landfill was level with the ground. Now it’s grown into a large hill sitting in the background of every drag race and driver’s safety event at the track.
“The company is really good about coming and picking up any debris that blows over and there’s only a smell when the wind blows just right,” he said. “But it’s still right there.”
The Kekaha Community Host Benefit Fund only receives money as long as the Kekaha landfill receives trash — it’s set to reach capacity within the next decade — but the landfill will always be there.
“What if there’s a hurricane that blows off the topsoil, what if the wind changes and brings smell, what about sinkholes or methane?” Ricci said. “I’m not a scientist but it’s just common sense to worry about this stuff with the proximity to people.”
If the landfill’s safety measures do fail in some way, it would be the county’s responsibility to clean it up. But the committee is looking to use the host benefit funds to offset the physical, economic and mental downsides of living next to a landfill for decades to come.
The committee is considering approving fewer projects per year and instead investing in some kind of endowment or foundation. Very early in the brainstorming stage, the idea is the funds would accrue interest, and the profit could be used to fund scholarships and other community programs long after the landfill closes.
“I’m hopeful that we would sustain at least maybe some of our legacy programs that we’re trying to put in like our scholarship program,” Ricci said. “But at the same time, there’s a lot of families who need help.”
In response to the pandemic, the committee spent more in 2020 than any year since 2013. Ricci said deciding how to balance long-term and immediate needs is just one of the many tough decisions that go into making a project like this a success.
He said living and working near a landfill is never ideal. But a benefit fund that is truly community-led, streamlines bureaucracy and tangibly makes people’s lives easier makes the landfill a community asset instead of an embarrassment.
“If we didn’t have this funding I’d be one of the first ones out there protesting the landfill,” he said.
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