Officials direct millions of dollars toward deferred maintenance projects and longstanding community concerns.

With extra money on hand, Hawaii County officials plan to spend heavily on deferred maintenance projects in the coming year — namely, a troubled wastewater treatment plant in Hilo that’s long been at risk of complete failure.

If the plant were to collapse, some 2.8 million gallons of partially treated sewage could flow into Hilo Bay. The budget for fiscal year 2024, which started July 1, includes $125 million in general obligation bonds to upgrade the plant — the single biggest expense in the county’s latest spending plan.

An increase in property values and associated tax revenue gave a $19 million bump to the operating budget, which was $47 million higher overall than last year. The combined operating and capital budgets for FY24 total $1.2 billion.

The Hilo wastewater treatment plant has been at risk of failure for years. (Courtesy: Hawaii County)

Multiple inspections of the Hilo wastewater plant over the past decade have identified severely corroded equipment, well beyond its life expectancy. Aeration tanks, valves, pumps and digesters could fail at any time. Not only would that pollute the ocean, but workers could be exposed to harmful pathogens, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  

“The good thing is, our operator has been doing a great job making sure we stay in compliance with a dilapidated facility,” Ramzi Mansour, director of the county’s Department of Environmental Management, said in an interview last week.

Long-awaited plant upgrades will occur in two phases over the course of five years. The first phase will cost roughly $90 million to $100 million. Phase two will have similar price tag.

The funding will come from a variety of sources, including the state revolving loan fund and general obligation bonds, county Finance Director Deanna Sako said in an interview last week. Mansour said he’s also pursuing federal funding.

The first phase of fixing the Hilo wastewater treatment plant is expected to go out to bid in the first quarter of 2024. (Courtesy: Hawaii County)

Millions of dollars are also being directed for upgrades to wastewater treatment plants in other parts of the island. Pahala and Naalehu in the Kau District are top priorities.

Both communities have “gang cesspools” constructed during the plantation era. Gang cesspools serve multiple homes that share an underground pit for untreated sewage and wastewater.

Such antiquated systems are no longer allowed because of their potential for contamination with ground water or the ocean. Under a federal consent decree, the county is in the process of reviewing suitable alternatives and will meet with the community to discuss the options on Aug. 24 at the Naalehu Community Center.

The Parks and Recreation Department is also getting a substantial budget boost this fiscal year. About $3.9 million has been added for building repairs and maintenance, increased security and to supplement the West Hawaii golf subsidy program.

Last year’s budget contained only $450,000 for such projects, Mayor Mitch Roth said at a town hall meeting in North Kohala on Tuesday. The county operates just over 300 parks, many with deferred maintenance needs.

A residential street in Naalehu, a community that relies on gang cesspools. (Courtesy: Hawaii County)

The county is also steering additional funding toward resolving criminal cases.

Five new deputy prosecutor positions are being added to the prosecuting attorney’s office as well as four clerks and an executive assistant. In all, the office will have $1.6 million in new funding to accommodate an increased workload and to purchase new computer and office equipment.

Hawaii County Prosecutor Kelden Waltjen said his office has the highest caseload in the state assigned to deputy prosecuting attorneys and the decision to increase the staff was driven by data.

Kelden Waltjen (Courtesy: Kelden Waltjen)

With more deputies, he hopes to encourage “vertical prosecutions,” where a victim has the same prosecutor and investigator from start to finish of a case.

Waltjen also plans to have dedicated staff to handle appeals, post-conviction integrity cases, legislative issues and diversionary efforts like community and specialty treatment courts.

As far as law enforcement in the county, Big Island Police Chief Benjamin Moszkowicz is beefing up his current force of 403 officers.

He’s hiring seven new police officers on Monday, has plans to hire 20 more by November and will add 32 additional officers by January or February, Moszkowicz said Tuesday night at the Kohala town hall.

Benjamin Moszkowicz answers questions during a police commission meeting held Monday at Hilo's County Building.Photo: Tim Wright
Hawaii County Police Chief Benjamin Moszkowicz. (Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2022)

The county’s ocean safety staff is also growing with nine new water safety officers to be hired.

Another high-profile item in this year’s budget is $619,326 for the creation of a new Office of Sustainability, Climate, Equity and Resilience.

The Cabinet-level office is the brainchild of County Council members Rebecca Villegas and Heather Kimball who represent the greater Kailua-Kona and Hamakua areas, respectively.

“It’s a huge win for our county and it also sets us up to be in alignment with federal funding coming in,” Villegas said in an interview.

The office will set priorities and coordinate county efforts to deal with the effects of climate change including sea level rise, coastal erosion, more frequent and intense storms and wildfires, among other things.  

The office’s creation is timely since county governments across the country are in line to receive what is likely to be the largest infusion of federal cash “in our lifetime,” Villegas said, referring in part to the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in November 2021.

“You have a lot of federal money being thrown at counties,” said Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder, who represents mauka sections of the Puna District. “We have access now to millions of dollars to take on projects.”

The Puna District on Hawaii island is among those that will benefit from an infusion of funds. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Speaking from a Department of Defense conference in St. Louis focused on federal funding for climate resilience, Kimball said the new office will better position Hawaii County to capture large federal grants.

The office will have an administrator who will be appointed by the mayor, as well as a community outreach and communications specialist, a data analyst and visual specialist, grant manager and a policy analyst, Kimball said.

Hawaii County Council member Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder (Courtesy: Hawaii County)

Some of the projects that Kanealii-Kleinfelder is excited to see happen in his district are a new animal control facility for East Hawaii in Puna’s Orchidland neighborhood, budgeted at $3 million. And planning for a combined fire and police station in Keaau.

Given that the Puna District is about the size of Oahu, a new station is sorely needed, he said.

I have been pushing and pushing on this idea that we need more police. We need more access to services. We need faster services,” said Kanealii-Kleinfelder.

Other items in the budget include $5 million toward the construction of a Hilo skate park, $9 million for improvements to the Laupahoehoe boat ramp, $18 million for road, infrastructure and housing at Waikoloa’s Kamakoa Nui affordable housing neighborhood, and $20 million for emergency access and connector roads in Puna.

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