Kahoolawe panel’s funds running out

Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission members approved a nearly $2.9 million budget Wednesday for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

And, while the spending plan continues operations for another year at a “bare minimum,” according to commission Executive Director Michael Naho’opi’i, the budget doesn’t address a new source of funding. That would be needed to stem the rapidly depleting remainder of a $44 million trust fund established for commission operations in 1994 during the federal government’s cleanup of Kahoolawe.

In 2003, the trust fund had $33 million. In fiscal 2009, it was down to $16.5 million, further dropping to $13.5 million in fiscal 2010 and to $10.7 million in fiscal 2011, according to a financial report on the fund.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Naho’opi’i said the fund fell further to $8.1 million in fiscal 2012 and is projected to go down to $5.8 million in this fiscal year. If no new revenue source is approved by the state Legislature, the commission will be left with around $1 million at the beginning of fiscal 2016, he said.

Then, the commission would “probably shut down operations,” he said, putting ongoing island restoration work in mothballs until more funding is available or the island passes on to a Native Hawaiian sovereign entity.

“We have to always be prepared for the shutdown,” he said.

Commission Chairwoman Michele Chouteau McLean, who also serves as deputy director of the county Department of Planning, said she hopes it won’t come to that.

She said she’s hopeful that the state will find funding to continue island restoration and rehabilitation work within two years and that the commission won’t need to face a “doomsday” scenario when trust funds run dry.

Future funding options include providing the commission with a share of the state’s real property conveyance tax, getting a line-item appropriation in the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ budget or obtaining financial support from the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, McLean said.

How those pieces will eventually fit together “remains to be seen,” she said.

State Sen. J. Kalani English, whose 7th Senate District includes Kahoolawe, said he would advocate getting adequate funding for the commission to continue its operations because “no matter what, the state has a fiduciary responsibility” to manage the island “until such time a Hawaiian government is organized.”

However, English said he has heard fellow state lawmakers question the commission’s spending of its trust funds. They maintain that, since the commission has chosen to expend the funding, that “doesn’t mean the rest of the state should support them when the trust is gone,” he said.

English said his personal belief is that “we need to continue supporting the work” (of the commission), but it needs to change some of its policies to be “self-sufficient.”

“The state should not leave them out in the lurch,” he said.

Specifically, the commission should allow some commercialization of Kahoolawe, even if that means selling T-shirts at the Maui Fair or setting up an online shop to sell merchandise, English said.

He added that he doesn’t believe commercial activity should be allowed on the island itself.

McLean said the state law that set up the commission specifically prohibits commercial activity on the island. There has been discussion about seeking a change in the law, but “we need to really talk through it” with interested parties to determine specifically what types of commercial activity would be allowed, she said.

The commission’s five-year plan includes two options for “limited commercial use” of the island, McLean said. Those would be allowing land on the island to be used for cellular phone and microwave antennas and for solar power generation with electricity transmitted via an undersea cable, she said.

She acknowledged that both proposals would be controversial. “Moving to any kind of commercial use is controversial,” she said.

Davianna McGregor, an island access coordinator for the Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana, said the island should be seen as a cultural learning center with groups using it for cultural purposes agreeing to share in the cost of infrastructure and commission operations.

She advocated getting the community excited about preserving the island as an educational resource for “everyone who lives here to connect with Hawaiian culture, Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian alike.”

McLean said the commission already has groups share costs to some extent. For example, volunteer groups visit the island a couple of times a month, usually to do restoration work such as planting native flora or removing kiawe, and then they reimburse the commission for some of its costs, including housing.

“Certainly, there’s potential to tap into entities for revenue,” she said.

In January, a state Senate bill was introduced by Sens. Malama Solomon, Donovan Dela Cruz, Gilbert Kahele and Maile Shimabukuro to put the commission under OHA for administrative purposes. (Now, the commission is attached administratively to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.) That bill was referred to three Senate committees – none of which scheduled it for a hearing.

McLean said the commission wrote to Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Senate lawmakers, asking them to table the measure.

OHA opposed the governor’s proposal, and pursuing the matter would have pitted OHA against DLNR, which would have been committed to advocating for the governor’s bill, she said.

The commission sought to avoid an “adversarial situation,” she said.

Figuring out how to continue the commission’s work into the future needs to be discussed “thoughtfully and deliberately,” McLean said.

“OHA’s willing to give some financial support . . . They need to know what the end game is,” she said.

A bill to provide future funding for the commission was not introduced in this year’s legislative session, and Abercrombie has rejected setting aside a portion of the state’s conveyance tax for KIRC operations, according to the commission’s Dec. 17 meeting minutes.

Instead, the governor favors asset forfeiture and “bridge funding” until the commission’s work is transferred to another entity, such as OHA, the minutes show.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers have been unwilling to seriously discuss future funding for the commission while it continues to have millions leftover in the trust fund, McLean said. Instead, the commission has been told to “come back when you have $1 million.”

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.

*The Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission is working on a new strategic plan that may include limited commercial uses in the future. State law would need to be amended to allow such a change. There is no current plan that allows commercial uses on the island. A story published on Page A1 that continued on Page A4 Thursday left the incorrect impression that the plan was adopted, rather than under consideration.

Also, according to commission Chairwoman Michele Chouteau McLean, members of the state Legislature, the administration of Gov. Neil Abercrombie and the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs have expressed support for future funding for the commission, “but no commitments have been made.”

She added that “the KIRC believes these supporters see Kahoolawe as a shared responsibility and that ‘bridge’ funding could be provided to maintain KIRC’s operations until its transition to a Hawaiian sovereign entity.”

The Maui News apologizes for the error.