In his first State of the County address, Bissen also addressed priorities related to water, housing and government jobs.

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen announced Tuesday that he has reached a deal with Gov. Josh Green that will allow a long-awaited high school in Kihei to open.

Maui County

Speaking from the front lawn of the county building in Wailuku, the retired judge said he and the governor have agreed on an indemnification plan that will result in Kulanihakoi High School opening its doors while at the same time prohibiting pedestrian crossings at a new roundabout that’s been the center of controversy.

For the past two months, the mayor said he and his team have been working with the Education and Transportation departments, state Land Use Commission and Green’s office to cut through paperwork, planning and permit issues.

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen delivered his first State of the County address, Tuesday. (Courtesy: Maui County Facebook/Screenshot/2023)
Maui Mayor Richard Bissen delivered his first State of the County address, Tuesday. (Courtesy: Maui County Facebook/Screenshot/2023)

Years-long delays in the opening of Kulanihakoi High School have fueled intense frustration among parents, students and community members. The problem has centered on the Department of Education’s resistance to building a pedestrian bridge so that students and others could safely cross Piilani Highway to access the new high school’s $200 million campus.

That’s despite a 2013 order by the state zoning authority to build either an underpass or an overpass. Rather than starting construction, DOE officials haggled over whether a bridge or an underpass were needed and at the same time spent millions on a four-lane roundabout in front of the school as a would-be alternative.

A screenshot of the DOE’s presentation to the Land Use Commission, showing the roundabout in front of the high school. (Screenshot/2023)

Bissen said he submitted terms to Green last week that would indemnify the county from certain conditions and allow it to issue the high school a temporary certificate of occupancy.

“The county’s efforts together with those of Sen. Angus McKelvey and Rep. Terez Amato will now give families of South Maui a way to keep their children closer to home,” Bissen said.

He didn’t say when exactly the school will open its doors.

Water, Housing, Government Jobs Among Mayor’s Priorities

Bissen also focused on water issues in his first State of the County address. Of the four sources the county uses to pump water into homes and businesses, none are under county control, he said.

The mayor said his administration is working with the Trust for Public Land to buy valuable watershed and conservation lands in Na Wai Eha, adding that “we are speaking with and seeking acquisition of the Wailuku Water Company” after the prior administration’s efforts stalled.

Voters last November approved a charter amendment directing the county to create new entities called water authorities. The first one is set for East Maui with others to follow in parts of Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

Besides water and the South Maui high school, Bissen said his priorities since taking office have included housing, infrastructure, economic diversification and environmental protection.

On the housing front, Bissen said when he sends his proposed budget to the Maui County Council on Friday it’ll include a boost to the Affordable Housing Fund.

By statute, that fund receives a minimum of 3% from real estate property taxes. Bissen’s proposed budget would increase the contribution to 8%, or $43 million.

He’s also going to propose a reduction in property taxes collected on owner-occupied homes that are $3 million in value or less, and lower the mandatory minimum property tax to $300. He didn’t say how big the reduction would be but that it is intended to “support residents who make the islands their home and not a housing investment.”

Bissen noted there are 13 housing projects currently in different stages of development that will offer more than 2,660 affordable units.

On the environmental front, Bissen took aim at the estimated 100,000 axis deer on Maui, Lanai and Molokai that create severe damage to soil, plants, watersheds, public lands and other assets.

Mayor Richard Bissen wants to create a market incentive to develop venison products from the invasive axis deer. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022)

“This population continues to multiply at staggering numbers,” he said, and acutely contributes to dangerous flooding, water runoff and hazardous mud conditions.

Bissen wants to develop a market incentive to “provide an economic stream of venison products, making use of an existing certified processing plant on Maui.” He didn’t offer details on how a venison market could be developed but said it’s an “actionable priority” for his administration and that his administration will continue to work with Sen. Lynn DeCoite and County Council member Yuki Lei Sugimura on it.

Regarding climate change, Bissen said his administration has entered into phase two of a contract with Johnson Controls that will “involve installation of solar panels, the use of battery energy storage systems, and implementation of water conservation technologies.”

Bissen also touched on what he called an unprecedented staffing shortage at the county. The administration has finalized plans to launch an aggressive recruitment initiative to fill vacancies.

“I applaud our employees for working through staffing shortages while still providing vital services to our public,” the mayor said.

The Maui County Facebook page lists a slew of available jobs. Open positions include clerk, purchasing specialist, geographic information systems analyst, nursery worker, homeless program coordinator and housing specialist.

Whether people can afford to work in such jobs isn’t a given in many cases. The typical home price in Maui lists at $1.16 million. The average per capita income of a Maui County resident is about $40,000, according to census data.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Read a copy of Mayor Bissen’s speech:

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