Viewpoint: Taxpayer dollars must be spent as authorized by County Council

You have probably noticed the Old Wailuku Post Office building has been demolished. What you may not have noticed is that the Maui County Council never authorized the demolition, the use of funds to demolish the building or the use of funds to plan for a massive expansion of the county complex, estimated to cost upward of $48 million.

So where did the taxpayer money to tear the building down come from?

Two years ago, in the fiscal year 2012 budget, the council approved a $1.5 million request from the Arakawa administration for funds for the design of an “Old Wailuku Post Office Rehabilitation” project. Rehabilitation work was to include roof repairs, electrical upgrades, fire sprinkler improvements, exterior concrete repairs, structural repairs and removal of asbestos, lead and mold.

The council appropriated the funds based on the results of a property condition assessment performed by the Tavares administration in 2010, which concluded the building was “structurally sound” and rehabilitation of the building was a viable option. The report noted that the estimated cost to restore the building for warehouse and office space was $6.5 million.

In tandem with the $1.5 million appropriation for project design, the Arakawa administration also projected another $4.25 million for fiscal year 2013 to pay for the work to rehabilitate the building for offices, meeting rooms and storage.

Less than a year later, the mayor’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposal omitted any funding request for the Old Wailuku Post Office Rehabilitation project. Then, earlier this year, Mayor Alan Arakawa requested an amendment to the fiscal year 2013 budget to add an appropriation of $1.5 million for the “Kalana O Maui Campus Expansion” project.

When the Budget and Finance Committee questioned the source of funding for the demolition of the Old Wailuku Post Office and the initial design of the Kalana O Maui Campus Expansion project, the committee was told that the source was the fiscal year 2012 appropriation for the Old Wailuku Post Office Rehabilitation project.

Yes, the building’s demolition was funded by an appropriation for its rehabilitation.

The proper procedure would have been to request a budget amendment to demolish the building and initiate the master planning of the Kalana O Maui Campus. This was not done. Council approval was not sought to demolish the building, as was done with the Montana Beach house, and as required by the Maui County Code.

Instead, the legislative process was bypassed and an iconic building is now gone.

The estimated cost of the new building is approximately $28 million. The people, and the council, were not given the option to choose to rehabilitate the building or allow for a new building to be constructed in its place, at an added cost of $21 million.

The Budget and Finance Committee asked for a legal opinion on whether ordinances were violated. The corporation counsel declined to give a legal opinion, citing a conflict of interest, and suggested options for the council including the hiring of special counsel.

The nonopinion speaks volumes.

Under the Maui County Charter, the council is the taxpayers’ representative. We have the responsibility to ensure that public funds are spent for lawful, public purposes.

The council is currently left without legal representation and, hence, without the ability to vindicate taxpayers’ legal rights in this matter. Out of necessity, I have introduced a resolution to hire special counsel to represent the council. The resolution will be considered by the council’s Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee at 1:30 p.m. Friday in Council Chambers.

Exercising oversight responsibility may not always be popular, but it’s what the council was elected to do. Are the people’s long-term, best interests served when a misuse of county funds goes unaddressed? As stewards of taxpayers money, it’s the council members’ jobs to ensure those dollars are only spent as authorized. I trust our taxpayers will agree.

* Maui County Council Member Mike White is the chairman of the council’s Budget and Finance Committee. He holds the council’s Makawao-Haiku-Paia residency seat.