Kahoolawe panel OKs maybe last budget

WAILUKU – The Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission unanimously approved Tuesday a $2.89 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year, while acknowledging the possibility of having to shut down restoration efforts on the island when the trust fund runs out in 2016.

The commission’s approved budget for the 2015 fiscal year, which starts July 1, is only about 1.4 percent less than the current budget of $2.93 million.

Some commissioners suggested that KIRC should cut back its spending to try and stretch whatever little money it has left in the trust fund in hopes that the state Legislature would pass a funding mechanism in years to come. On May 2, the legislative session ended, and a bill to set aside 10 percent of the state conveyance tax revenue for Kahoolawe restoration efforts died in conference committee just minutes before a 6 p.m. deadline.

“I think it’s irresponsible to keep spending at the level that we’re spending, given the current state of the trust fund and what happened at the state Legislature this year,” KIRC Vice Chairwoman Namaka Whitehead said. “Are we able to cut from the budget next year that would give us an extra year to try to get a funding source?”

Whitehead and other commissioners suggested making cuts where possible – including eliminating a vacant staff position, which the commission did – to “buy some time until things get better.”

But KIRC Executive Director Mike Naho’opi’i said the budget already is stretched thin.

“We really can’t stretch it any more. Critical systems right now are failing. I’m putting off major repairs next year that we need, but we can’t stretch two (more) years,” Naho’opi’i said.

The commission’s microwave relay communications system, which enables Internet and telephone services, is “on its last leg,” he said. And, there is only one remaining main generator to supply power with no backup, and planned repairs to the base camp at Honokanaia have been postponed.

“My concern is if something major breaks we have no funds to fix it,” Naho’opi’i said.

Tuesday’s meeting was a grim, sobering discussion of undesirable alternatives. Commissioners discussed the possibilities of shutting down restoration work and operations, selling off KIRC resources such as vehicles, refrigerators and other equipment and discontinuing community volunteer trips.

Last year, a state audit revealed that the $44 million trust fund set up in 1993 would be depleted by 2016 if no new funding source were found and approved. Now, the trust fund has $3.53 million remaining. By next June, the end of fiscal year 2015, there will only be an estimated $1.18 million.

Whitehead suggested that all base camp operations be shut down in six months, which would save KIRC some money but would also send a message to the public.

“That might help communicate the urgency of the situation to the folks who don’t realize how urgent the situation is, and it also gives us extra money that following year to shut down in a responsible way (if needed),” Whitehead said.

If the newly elected legislators pass a funding mechanism during next year’s session, KIRC may be able to continue its operations as is. If no such bill were passed, commissioners said they would then discuss an exit strategy, and the possibility of passing on jurisdiction over Kahoolawe to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources or the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Naho’opi’i said that, if the commission were to demobilize or shut down its restoration efforts on Kahoolawe, it would take a “big effort” and a lot of money to resume operations in the future.

“Once you shut everything down, it’s very hard to bring back up,” he said. “All the refrigeration systems, you can scratch all those because the seals will be leaked by then, the generators will be rusted,” he said.

The budget was passed Tuesday with a caveat that commissioners would re-evaluate it in six months, once the election is over and they have a better grasp of what their chances of obtaining funding are from the state Legislature. They will know for certain whether they will be shutting down by the end of the legislative session in April.

“It’s clear that the commission is struggling, you know, ‘What I gonna cut, my left or my right arm?’ How do we go forward?” asked Stanton Enomoto, former KIRC executive director who has been involved with Kahoolawe restoration efforts for more than 20 years.

Since 2012, the Maui native has volunteered his time to lead an ad-hoc working group on behalf of the commission to develop a strategic plan of what the island would or should look like by 2026, 50 years after Native Hawaiian activists first occupied the island in protest of the military’s continued use of the island as a bombing range.

“Fifteen years ago, we were in this very room arguing about the use plan, beefing with the Navy, talking about how we gonna manage the reserve water, but we went through it all and we persisted. So yeah, even though funding is growing short and the commission has to make some difficult choices, it doesn’t mean the end of the island. Put the call out, others may come to the table,” Enomoto said.

“Don’t feel down, things are gonna happen. Money, no money, gas, no gas, guys is going to the island, that’s the bottom line . . . because we all share (Kahoolawe). We all believe in it. It’s about the restoration of the kino of Kanaloa.”

* Eileen Chao can be reached at echao@mauinews.com.