WAILUKU - Mayor Charmaine Tavares said she is confident Maui County will benefit from President-elect Barack Obama's $775 billion, two-year plan to jump-start the economy by investing in local government projects.
Tavares was one of more than 170 mayors from across the country who listened in on an hour-long conference call Monday with Obama's transition team.
Maui County has put in a request, at the incoming administration's behest, for federal government assistance in funding 58 county projects totaling about $200 million in needed capital improvements and work force development programs. To qualify, projects must be deemed "Ready to Go" and able to be completed in the next couple years, Tavares said Saturday.
The National Conference of Mayors put together the Ready to Go list earlier this month as part of its Main Street Recovery Plan and is working with Obama's team, said county spokeswoman Mahina Martin.
"It was great," Tavares said of the conference call. "I was very impressed with how thoughtful their plan is in such a short time. It's a very bold package intended to keep people working and get more jobs out there to strengthen the economy."
Obama has said he hopes to create at least 3 million jobs through his proposed economic recovery initiative, which supporters have likened to President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. However, the stimulus package, a concept still under development that Obama introduced last month that could top $850 billion, will need to go through Congress first.
Tavares said she's uncertain how many Maui County projects will be funded, but felt that Obama's mandate for qualifying fell in line with her administration's priorities. Tavares said that the money would go to retrofit county facilities for energy efficiency and environmentally sound technology as well as retrain people for new careers.
For the past two years, the mayor has tried to establish more sources of renewable energy and develop the local high-tech sector.
"I'm pretty confident there will be something coming our way, not the whole $200 million, of course," she said. "But I believe the president understands we're a small place in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I think he understands our isolation, and that we do need help."
The federal stimulus package is separate from an initiative announced two weeks ago by Gov. Linda Lingle. The governor will utilize state bond funds for 217 capital-improvement projects in the county valued at $259.84 million.
Some Maui County items on the state list include widening Honoapiilani Highway, repairing the Hana wharf and boat ramp, and constructing a new science building at Maui Community College.
Lingle has fast-tracked more than 1,500 projects across the state - many of which local lawmakers put in the hopper years ago - that her administration believes can be completed within the next 18 months.
Tavares said the conference call with Obama's team proposed stimulating the economy with funding for infrastructure; energy technology and efficiency; health care; school construction and modernization; and vital services for America's most vulnerable citizens.
Two of Obama's transition team, Jason Furman and Cecilia Munoz, led the discussion, Tavares said. Furman is Obama's senior economic adviser and Munoz is the incoming intergovernmental affairs director.
Tavares said spending program under development would be similar to the existing U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Community Development Block Grant. Counties and municipalities typically use CDBG funds for bricks-and-mortar type projects that support anti-poverty programs and distressed communities.
She said that she was told that the federal government also intends to deliver the economic stimulus grants directly to cities and counties. That way the money would go to work immediately, Tavares said.
Tavares and Budget Director Fred Pablo listened in on the conference call. She said it was the first of several such sessions that will be conducted by the Obama administration to provide information on his economic recovery package and receive feedback from mayors.
Tavares also said she plans to attend the National Conference of Mayors Jan. 17-19 in Washington, D.C., and the inauguration Jan. 20. All four of the state's mayors plan to attend the conference, she said, in order to build a better relationship with the incoming federal leadership.
"This is really something where he's thinking out of the box, a program we haven't seen since the Eisenhower administration," Tavares said. "I just hate to open the paper every day and see what else is falling apart."
She said Eisenhower set up the federal interstate highway program that funded the development of freeways across Oahu.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg. I think the whole nation is hopeful that this is the time for new leadership to come forward again."
Tavares said she wants to partner with private business, as Obama's team suggests, to rank the county's needs. Some of her suggestions included more wind power turbines, developing algae as fuel, and buying electric cars and building plug-in stations. The county will also work to retrofit facilities, such as pools, pumps and lights to be powered by photovoltaic panels and warmed with solar energy.
The Maui County list includes more traditional infrastructure items such as new fire stations on Molokai and Lanai, a South Maui police station, renovating senior centers, repairing water and sewer lines, adding storage tanks and bus stops, and resurfacing roads across the county.
"Further expanding health care is a concern; and another big, big part of that is building a work force," Tavares said. "And that requires training. We need an opportunity to hone the skills of everyone from techies to nurses to farmers."
Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.