Counties cannot cover more state functions


This past week, the County Council’s Budget and Finance Committee recommended approval of an amended agreement with the State of Hawaii to continue county lifeguard services at Makena State Park through Sept. 30.

Makena and other state beaches come under the jurisdiction of the state, but the counties are contracted by the Department of Land and Natural Resources for lifeguard services.

Since July 1, the county has continued and will likely continue to provide services, despite a full-year agreement not being in place; the state not paying the county in a timely manner; and the Legislature’s decision to end limited liability protection for lifeguards.

The legal and financial burden now falls on the county to carry the costs of these state-contracted lifeguards and legally defend them while they fulfill their duties. The county continues to accommodate these conditions because the lifeguards at Makena are vital to the safety of our community.

The state covers salary and benefits costs, which for the first time fully cover the county’s costs. However, they do not pick up equipment costs and the added liability insurance counties must carry due to the change in the law.

This development adds to the continual struggle counties face to receive a fair share of resources from the state to deliver services. In many cases, the state takes advantage of the counties because a lack of action only hurts residents and, in this case, employees. In the end, counties usually step up and make a situation work instead of letting a problem linger.

Providing lifeguard services for the state is a prime example of the quandary counties face. This also comes on the heels of the recent decision by the Legislature to force Neighbor Islands to increase transient accommodation taxes for Honolulu’s rail.

Adding to the mix is a recent discussion by the Maui Metropolitan Organization to add a Maui County general excise surcharge to pay for state highway projects.

The proposal was fueled by representatives from the state, citing a lack of funding as the reason for delays to important state highway projects such as Honoapiilani Highway and the Paia relief route.

The enactment of the general excise tax surcharge is being offered to Neighbor Island counties for transportation-related costs until March since the Legislature allowed Honolulu to extend its general excise tax for rail. The surcharge, if passed, could be effective until 2030.

The surcharge must gain council approval, and similar to Oahu, should be used to supplement county-specific projects.

If the state believes additional funding for highways is needed, the Legislature has the power of taxation to raise funds. Yet, it appears it has passed on the burden. Nevertheless, I have maintained that residents cannot sustain additional taxes. Government must be able to live within our means and at times do more with less. 

The general excise tax is regressive, which means it imposes a greater burden on those who have less of an ability to pay. In addition, the tax applies to the sale of basic necessities such as food and medication, items that are exempt from sales tax in most other states.

Counties are willing to assist the state where needed, but cannot be asked to solve additional problems without first taking care of mandated county responsibilities. I know the council is committed to doing our best for residents and remaining open and willing to collaborate with the state, but only if it is done in a fair and equitable manner. 

* Mike White is chairman of the Maui County Council. He holds the council seat for the Paia-Haiku-Makawao residency area. “Chair’s 3 Minutes” is a weekly column to explain the latest news on county legislative matters. Go to for more information.