Money needs to be spent responsibly

June 15, 2013

By JOHN BLUMER-BUELL , for The Maui News

For several months, the Maui media has covered agreements and disagreements with the 2014 Maui County Council budget. For me, the most easily identified and objected to items are the undeserved pay raises for the mayor and the council members at a time of enormous long-term debt that includes unfunded mandates for county employees' health and retirement benefits.

Because of fuzzy accounting, unfunded county mandates have been estimated at between $500 million and $1 billion. The administration, council and state have publicly discussed the issues in hopes of resolving the government-created problems. There are ominous implications for the future stability and well-being of our community.

The time for a complete vetting of the situation is long overdue. What are the best- and worst-case scenarios? Using unreliable and limited economic assumptions does not lead to long-term solutions. Raising of property taxes without a truly comprehensive discussion and understanding of the taxation structure and system is irresponsible. This budget session the council chose to raise property taxes and kick the can of comprehensive discussion down the road for a second decade.

The Committee for More Equitable Taxation has offered constructive ideas and legislation toward possible reform of the property tax system for decades. Those ideas, including the concept of acquisition-based property assessments, have never been fully explored through computer-generated models and public discussion. It is time. Historically, the homeowner exemption and circuit breaker were the result of COMET and the council working together in 1991.

In light of the unsettling county and state debt and the crippling national debt, why would the Arakawa administration and Maui County Council approve a large expenditure for the Nahiku Community Center while pushing funding ahead of due process and the law? How could this happen?

The Arakawa administration filed an exemption from Hawaii Revised Statute Chapter 343 to bypass the requirement for an environmental assessment for the Nahiku Community Center. Community residents and taxpayers have, again, been denied legally required due process with the additional allocation of $600,000 in the 2014 budget. More than a year ago, the council matched $250,000 from the state without due process and accountability.

There are many contrasting views of the project. The environmental assessment would have included discussion of each of the identified concerns from the community and considered the best options for the common good.

It is worth noting the most important priority for the common good for the Hana district is a wastewater treatment system around Hana Bay. The need was identified by the community in 1988 and included in the 1994 Hana Community Plan. There are more than a hundred cesspools, an injection well and an unlined dump draining into the bay. The health of Hana Bay is critically important to the Hana community, residents of Hawaii and visitors from around the world.

Wouldn't you think that the administration and council would protect taxpayers by resolving the Nahiku Community Center property title dispute before moving forward with this potential million-dollar expenditure? They did not.

In fact, the president of the Nahiku Community Association claims ownership of the subject property. The Maui News (March 12, 2012) said that the president said "the land was supposed to be returned to her family after the school closed. She says that she has documents to prove ownership."

I don't doubt the claim. But why are taxpayers paying for a project with a title dispute? This is one of many issues that should have been discussed in the environmental assessment process.

Council members want to create the impression of a responsible and accountable approach to the budget and other issues. However, the Nahiku Community Center exposes just one example of what goes on behind closed doors. There are other documented cases in the Hana district alone.

The recent discussion by the council of potential misuse of public funds to demolish the Old Wailuku Post Office reinforces the need for an independent budget auditor who also audits adherence to the law.

* John Blumer-Buell is a decadeslong supporter and member of COMET, a member of the General Plan Advisory Committee, and has been a community advocate in county budget and land-use issues throughout the past 25 years. He lives in Hana.