Funding failure could spell end for commission

A bill to secure a funding source for the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission neared but did not cross the finish line in the state Legislature’s lawmaking session, which ended Thursday, and its failure could be the beginning of the end for the commission.

With the Kaho’olawe Rehabilitation Trust Fund expected to run out of money in fiscal 2016, the commission will meet in June to adopt its own budget for fiscal 2015, said Michele Chouteau McLean, the commission’s chairwoman and deputy director of the county Department of Planning.

Without a prospect of receiving state funding, “we will be planning for shutdown,” she said Thursday.

And that would mean that 17 commission employees would lose their jobs, she said. Decades of Kahoolawe erosion control work with plants long cared for would go unmaintained and unmonitored, leaving the plants to die and losing them to anchor the island’s soil. Rains would then wash the island’s loose dirt into the ocean and degrade the marine environment, she said.

KIRC-escorted trips to Kahoolawe would end, McLean said, and “people will probably trespass and could very well get seriously injured or killed” by unexploded ordnance leftover from decades of military bombardment of the island.

Since the U.S. Navy transferred ownership of Kahoolawe to the state in 1994, there has not been an unexploded ordnance accident because strict safety protocols are in place, she said.

“We know where it’s safe to go and where it isn’t,” McLean said. “Our mantra (when visiting Kahoolawe) is ‘if you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up.’ ”

What might look like a rock or a piece of rope “could be rocket propellant,” a fuse or “something very dangerous,” she said. “Without a (KIRC) presence there . . . there’s a serious possibility people could get hurt or killed. I can’t say what the (state) liability would be for that.”

There was an acknowledgment among lawmakers that some funding source needs to be found, but the hang-up came with what the funding source should be, McLean said.

“We really appreciate the support that we had throughout the session, but we’re disappointed the bill didn’t make it out of conference committee,” she said.

Introduced by East Maui-Molokai-Lanai-Kahoolawe Rep. Mele Carroll, House Bill 2101 proposed to use a portion of state conveyance tax revenue to fund the commission’s work on Kahoolawe.

One version of the bill would have set aside 10 percent of the conveyance tax for the Kahoolawe fund. But it would have set a cap of no more than $3.5 million per fiscal year and repeal the funding as of June 30, 2020, or when a sovereign Native Hawaiian governing entity is recognized.

Now, the commission draws most of its funding from the trust fund created in 1994 during the federal unexploded ordnance cleanup of Kahoolawe. The federal funding is being exhausted, and it is expected to be depleted sometime in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2015, and runs to June 30, 2016.

In written testimony to lawmakers, Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairman William Aila Jr. said that conveyance tax revenue is critical for the protection of state natural resources, watershed protection and the state’s land management and acquisition activities.

Conveyance tax revenue is distributed among four sources: 10 percent to the land conservation fund, 25 percent to the natural area reserve fund, 30 percent to the rental housing fund and 35 percent to the general fund.

McLean said it appeared to commission members that conveyance-tax-funded state programs were in line with KIRC’s vision to restore the kino (the body) of Kahoolawe.

Lawmakers debated whether the funding source should be conveyance tax revenue, the general fund or some other source, she said.

Then, “I really think they just ran out of time,” McLean said.

KIRC public information specialist Kelly McHugh said that the commission’s next step is to “sharpen our strategy and try again next year.”

About 40 percent of KIRC’s work is funded by grants, McHugh said, “so we will stay the course and try to strengthen those relationships (and that percentage) as best we can.”

The commission received much support in testimony before lawmakers, she said, “and it appears that public understanding of our work, challenges and successes is growing.”

* Brian Perry can be reached at