Council members will consider the mayor’s plan to fill the gap, which includes proposed cuts to the fire department.

Maui County is facing a $31.2 million budget shortfall due to the Aug. 8 wildfires in Lahaina, Kula and Olinda, county documents show.

Over half of the lost revenue comes from an estimated $19.5 million decrease in real property taxes, which were waived for those who lost their homes. The fires killed at least 98 people and destroyed more than 2,200 structures in Lahaina and 19 homes in Upcountry.

The county also expects to collect less revenue this fiscal year, which started July 1, from licensing fees, fuel taxes and special assessments and charges for government services.

Mayor Richard Bissen has provided details on how he proposes balancing the county’s overall $1 billion budget for the Maui County Council to begin reviewing at its meeting Friday

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen has given the Maui County Council his proposed amended budget to close a $31 million shortfall due to the Aug. 8 fires. The council is expected to first hear it Friday before likely referring the bill to its budget committee for further consideration and revisions. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The shortfall should be made up by cutting expenses across the board, according to budget documents his administration gave Chair Alice Lee and the rest of the council earlier last week. That would mean less money for everything from environmental protection and wastewater management to the Maui Fire and Public Safety Department.

Bissen has proposed cutting $161,000 from the fire department’s administration, nearly $40,000 from training, $89,000 from the fire and rescue operations program, $16,500 from fire prevention and about $20,000 from ocean safety.

Lee felt almost certain that council members would not want to touch any area related to the fire department.

“We were overwhelmed by the fires,” she said. “The disaster is over for now, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t have another hurricane or extremely windy weather that could fuel another fire. We have to be vigilant about these things.”

Lee was still in the process of reviewing the mayor’s budget proposal Thursday, but there were other areas she did not support cutting, such as programs for seniors, children or homeless people.

“I’m not fond of going down that path,” she said. 

Maui Council Council Chair Alice Lee hears public testimony on the wildfire recovery effort, Tuesday. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui Council Council Chair Alice Lee says she’d like to close the budget shortfall by cutting the capital improvement projects budget instead. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Instead, Lee would prefer looking at more capital improvement projects that could be deferred because the county likely won’t have the personnel or resources anyway as the focus remains on the recovery of West Maui. 

Bissen’s proposal calls for cutting the CIP budget by $7.8 million, with the rest of the shortfall being made up from cuts to the operating budget. His communications team did not respond to a message seeking comment this week.

The amended budget bills will likely be referred to the council’s Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee, chaired by Councilwoman Yuki Lei Sugimura, for further deliberation.

Lee expects the council will have a “lively and robust discussion” on the mayor’s proposed budget amendments as the members consider modifying it over the coming weeks.

In a separate measure related to the budget, Bissen notified the council last week that his administration plans to repurpose $12.5 million from the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund to award competitive grants to businesses directly and indirectly impacted by the August fires.

A letter to the council from Maria Zielinski, county budget director, says the purpose of that Covid-19 fund was amended Dec. 29 to provide more flexibility, including for natural disasters, critical infrastructure and supporting community development. 

An Aug. 31 report by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization says the reopening of West Maui to tourism, set to begin Sunday under Gov. Josh Green’s plan, will help to reduce Maui’s revenue losses, as will Maui’s 0.5% general excise tax surcharge that begins Jan. 1.

UHERO has estimated that the overall Maui economy was losing $13 million per day when tourism fell off after the fires. It has slowly started to recover, and Green remained committed to the opening of West Maui after receiving a petition with more than 14,000 signatures imploring him to hold off.

Bissen, meanwhile, has instituted a phased reopening plan that involves opening the Ritz Carlton and the area between Kahana Villa and Kapalua to visitors on Sunday, then opening up other resorts in Kaanapali at a date that has yet to be set.

See all of the mayor’s proposed amendments to the county’s fiscal 2024 budget below.

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

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