The city charter mandates that these raises be delivered, meaning officials have to scrape together the money from other sources.

Salary raises for Honolulu council members kicked in with the new fiscal year on July 1, with just one complication: money for the raises wasn’t included in the budget.

That money will have to be pulled from other sources, and officials aren’t quite sure where that will come from yet. 

The new budget ends for now a controversial debate that had prompted discussion about cost of living, gaps in the city workforce and what constituents expect of their elected representatives.

Officials emphasized that this isn’t something that needed to be figured out by July 1. Instead, decision-makers can chip away at the problem through “cost savings” throughout the year. 

City council members Esther Kia’aina Radiant Cordero Matt Weyer Val Aquino Okimoto Angie Tulba citizen testimony
From left, Honolulu council members Esther Kia’aina, Radiant Cordero, Matt Weyer, Val Aquino Okimoto and Augie Tulba listen to a citizen offer testimony during an all-day meeting on June 7. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Council chair Tommy Waters is one of those decision-makers, since the council chair has sole discretion over moving money around the legislative budget. Council members generally deferred to him when asked where the money will come from. 

Waters did not return calls requesting comment.

“I haven’t talked to him about it per se,” said council member Matt Weyer, vice chair of the budget committee. “So I don’t know where he would anticipate taking the money from.”

Cost Savings

Honolulu’s city budget is actually made up of three budget bills, each of which the council approves individually.

Salaries are included in the legislative budget, which funds the council, and in the executive operating budget, which funds the administration’s normal operations. A third budget funds the city’s capital improvement projects, like bus stops or park renovations.

Raises will cost an extra $398,800 per year in the legislative budget and about $1 million per year extra in the executive operating budget. Respectively, these two budgets total about $26 million and about $3.4 billion.

While money can’t jump between separate budgets, it can be shifted around within the budget that it’s already in.

A version of this played out in May when the city’s electricity costs turned out to be higher than expected, an oddity attributed to the closure of Oahu’s last coal plant as well as global factors like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine contributing to increases in the price of oil. 

City department heads had to request council approval to move around money in order to cover those costs, including from the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Enterprise Services, which oversees the city’s zoo, golf courses and the Neil S. Blaisdell Center. 

Something like this could happen again to help cover executive officials’ pay raises, according to council member Radiant Cordero, who chairs the council’s budget committee. 

Raises for the executive branch were relatively uncontroversial. They were approximately 12.5%, matching the raises negotiated by the state’s bargaining unit 13 for other public workers.

Still, these pay increases were not included in the budget.

Scott Humber, communications director for Mayor Rick Blangiardi, said that these would probably be paid for through departmental cost savings.

Deputy communications director Ian Scheuring noted in an email that the city’s high vacancy rate would help because money for unfilled positions is already in the budget. 

“Since the majority of our departments have existing vacancies, or individuals leaving for some reason (due to retirement or other job opportunities, termination, etc.), salary savings are already being generated by virtue of not having to pay the salaries for positions that are vacant,” he wrote.

In most other cases, Scheuring wrote, an official from the city's Department of Budget and Fiscal Services would work with individual departments to figure out how to save money.

If departments still need to shift around money after that, they would have to ask for council approval for amounts above a certain threshold.

Essentially, council approval is needed if the amount of money being moved is a significant percentage of the money originally appropriated for a specific category, or if the amount is greater than $100,000.

Approval would be sought during the second half of the fiscal year, wrote Scheuring.

Honolulu City council chair Tommy Waters meeting
Honolulu City Council chair Tommy Waters has sole discretion for moving money around within the legislative budget. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Cordero said that part of her calculation for not including the increases was that bills can only be amended a limited number of times. By the time the Salary Commission released its recommendation on April 26, council members were already finishing up their second round of amendments on the budget, she said. 

Historical data shows that the commission almost always releases its recommendation in mid to late April. 

The commission’s recommendation to give council members a 64% pay increase – the biggest percentage boost since the commission first started giving recommendations in 1985 – riled many Oahu residents who felt it was an unfairly large increase. 

Commissioners argued that the increase would help attract a greater number of quality candidates and would finally reflect the council’s scope of responsibility. 

Council members can’t alter the commission’s recommendations. They can either reject the raises through a resolution or they can do nothing, which would allow the raises to automatically take effect. The council took no action this year and the raises went into affect July 1.

Cordero, the budget committee chair, opposed the raises.

“I felt that I was in my legislative ability to not put the raises in both the legislative budget as well as for administration,” Cordero said.

Weyer, the committee’s vice chair, felt the same way.

Cordero had hoped that there would be a vote on the resolutions, she said.

Regardless, when asked whether she expected Waters to discuss legislative cost savings with his members or whether he'd unilaterally make decisions about it, she emphasized that she does trust Waters to be more communicative than previous chairs.

"This is a different council, a more open and collaborative council for sure," said Cordero.

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