The public can weigh in this week on the mayor’s proposed $1.2 billion budget.

The Maui County Council is on an eight-stop listening tour to hear what that public thinks of Mayor Richard Bissen’s first budget, a 900-page proposal to restrain spending while confronting key challenges, from an economy hinged to the ebbs and flows of tourism to an unaffordable housing market for the poor and middle class.

Maui County

His $1.23 billion spending plan for Maui, Lanai and Molokai is only slightly higher than fiscal year 2023’s $1.21 billion spending plan — the largest budget in county history. Bissen gives $931 million to the county’s operating budget and $149 million for capital improvement projects, including police radio system upgrades, agricultural park expansions, road resurfacing, War Memorial Gym building improvements and Lahaina Civic Center reconstruction.

Bissen aims to sustain or increase funding for his primary concerns: housing, infrastructure, economic diversity, environmental protection and water, a finite resource that he wants to better manage in part by increasing water service fees and exploring desalination and water recycling.

Bissen described his approach to the fiscal year 2024 spending plan as conservative when he delivered it to council members, prioritizing the nuts and bolts of government services over flashy new investments.

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen’s budget proposal seeks to strengthen the county’s fiscal standing by embarking on a more ambitious debt payoff schedule and beefing up the emergency fund. (Maui County Facebook/Screenshot/2023)

The nine-member council expects to release a counterproposal in early May, according to Vice Chair Yuki Lei Sugimura, who is leading the budget process. The upcoming fiscal year starts July 1.

“Of course everybody wants housing, has a concern for the houseless and has opinions about our community centers and parks,” Sugimura said. “Our parks are the front lines and people want better maintenance. At these public hearings, that’s what people are saying loud and clear.”

Last year, when the county budget surpassed the billion-dollar threshold for the first time, the council increased former Mayor Mike Victorino’s proposed budget by about $25 million.

But this year Sugimura said she would like to see the council pass a budget that’s closer to or perhaps even more fiscally conservative than the mayor’s approach.

“I really do not want to spend more than $1 billion,” said the Upcountry councilwoman, adding that she favors paying down debts and maintaining existing facilities and programs over launching new money-hungry initiatives.

To this end, Bissen’s budget seeks to increase to $10 million from $3 million the county’s annual contribution to cover benefits for retired employees — a looming budget deficit. Speeding up these payments would create savings on interest and set the county on a course to eliminate this debt as soon as 2029, according to the Bissen administration.

Another hallmark of the mayor’s plan is a larger contribution to the county’s affordable housing fund — $43 million. Funded by 8% of the county’s property tax revenue — up from 3% this year — the proposed investment is an indicator of the longstanding public frustration over the housing crisis that continues to plague Maui County. 

Yuki Lei Sugimura, who is leading the council’s budget process, said she supports many of Bissen’s plans to rein in spending. (Courtesy: Democratic Party of Hawaii/2021)

Michael Williams, a former lawyer who serves as president of Maui Tomorrow Foundation, said he’s encouraged by the burst of funds Bissen aims to invest in affordable housing construction. But he said throwing money at the problem won’t necessarily fix it.

Three positions in the housing division that were created last July have not been filled yet, an example of a problem the county has with translating funding into progress, according to Williams, who last month completed a three-year term as chairman of the county Cost of Government Commission.

“The mayor is doing a good job of allocating money for the projects,” he said. “But what the county needs is people with the right skill sets to negotiate deals with developers over how much infrastructure help they need, how much mortgage subsidies they need, that kind of thing. Maui County hasn’t had anyone capable of doing that and that’s a big component to our housing problems.”

Another example: Last July the council allocated a quarter-million dollars to hire a consultant to put together a roadmap to end homelessness. But the contract between the county and the consultant has not yet been finalized, according to Williams.

“Here we are in the 10th month since that money has been available to do that plan and we’re losing all that time where we could have been working on this problem because it seems the current county employees don’t have the capacity or they don’t have the skill sets or they don’t have the drive to get these projects going,” he said.

On the heels of the Covid-19 disruption, Bissen wants to skyrocket the county’s contribution to its emergency fund to $40 million from $3 million to prop up Maui’s ability to handle any future public health, economic or environmental crisis. To that end, a fifth of the county’s transient accommodations tax revenues would be funneled into a new managed retreat revolving fund, established last year to pay for moving buildings or infrastructure threatened by erosion away from the coastline.

The mayor’s pitch includes a $9 million boost for the county agriculture department, which launched in July after voters approved a 2020 charter amendment to create the new arm of government. Last year the fledgling agency received $1.8 million out of the county’s $1.06 billion budget, which proponents said illustrated a lack of enthusiasm.

Bissen’s budget would fund other new branches of government. There’s a $100,000 allocation for new departments dedicated to affordable housing and oiwi resources, the latter of which would manage cultural resources and help the county operate as a bilingual government. Both departments were created after Maui County voters last November overwhelmingly supported a charter amendment calling for more resources to address skyrocketing housing prices and the shaky state of food security across the county.

A photograph of the county building in Wailuku.
Maui County voters in recent years have increased the size of government by adding several new departments and boards, including departments dedicated to agriculture, affordable housing and Hawaiian language and cultural resources. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

In a bid to help homeowners who live and work in Maui County instead of absentee real estate investors, Bissen wants to cut property taxes for owner-occupied homes valued at $3 million or less. He’s also proposed to lower the mandatory minimum property tax to $300 from $350.

The plan drew some criticism from Williams, who applauded efforts to reduce the tax burden on residents with less valuable property. But he noted a missed opportunity to more significantly raise taxes on the backs of real estate investors and second-home owners.

“He didn’t really take advantage of the progressive way the council has structured our property taxes to tax the more valuable properties at a higher rate than the lower ones,” Williams said. “There was just no creativity and imagination in his approach. You can raise an incredible amount of money that way and it’s all going to be paid by tourists, not locals.”

Former Mayor Alan Arakawa, who held the county’s top office for two four-year terms in 2002 and 2011, said he supports what he described as a “very, very frugal budget,” applauding Bissen’s efforts to boost emergency fund coffers and pay down debt.

“It’s about as good as a new mayor can put together,” Arakawa said. “He’s been in office since January and this is April. To come up with a proposal like this I think is remarkable.”

He did offer a criticism of Bissen’s plan to throw millions of dollars at the affordable housing crisis without also simplifying county rules and requirements pertaining to building and zoning that can greatly slow down the development process.

“The critical thing that I think is worth looking at is he is not proposing any really flamboyant new projects or new items to spend money on,” Arakawa said. “What he’s really doing is funding things that need to be done — repairing embankments for rock falls, improving the War Memorial and the ag parks. Those are things that have been in play for awhile and need to be done and I think it’s really well thought out overall.”

Maui County Councilwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez

At a budget hearing on Molokai, residents voiced support for the prospect of the Boys and Girls Club of Maui to establish a program on the island. The mayor’s budget includes $350,000 to relocate the aging Pukoo Fire Station building away from the ocean and a half-million dollars to design a new Molokai Police Station, as the existing structure in Kaunakakai is prone to flooding.

Councilwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who represents Molokai’s roughly 7,000 residents, said she plans to propose the creation of a new, steeper water use rate for hotels and resorts. Revenue from the rate hike would benefit the self-funded county Water Supply Department.

“Since resorts and hotels are such large consumers of water, we’re wanting to rework the system to ensure more equity,” she said.

Maui County Councilman Gabe Johnson

Priorities for Lanai include a long-stalled plan to build hundreds of affordable housing units on the outskirts of Lanai City, said Councilman Gabe Johnson, who represents the Pineapple Isle’s roughly 3,000 denizens. Johnson said he’s also advocating for the county to take over the Expeditions ferry between Lanai and Maui, which is up for sale. 

“Ask anybody on Lanai and they are so upset with the airlines and the ferry — it’s our lifeline,” Johnson said. “I want to keep the public in public transportation so hopefully this can be an opportunity to have the county run the ferry. The concern is that it’s on the market and that creates uncertainty.”

The council has so far hosted evening listening sessions on the budget in Lahaina, Molokai, Paia and Hana. Residents are invited to provide feedback at meetings in Kihei, Makawao, Lanai and Wailuku scheduled through Thursday.

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

Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation and the Cooke Foundation.

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author