WAILUKU - Nearly a quarter of a million dollars that previously had been earmarked for the Wailuku Main Street Association would instead be available to a variety of local community groups for small-town planning projects, under a proposal by Mayor Alan Arakawa.
Planning Department officials presented the plan to council Budget Committee members Monday, saying the change would allow the county to safeguard taxpayer funds while Wailuku Main Street is under investigation by the state attorney general's office for alleged violations of Hawaii's nonprofit laws. Planning Director Will Spence said setting aside the funds for "small-town planning" also would allow the county to set stricter criteria requiring grant recipients to report exactly how they use the money, something he has said Wailuku Main Street refuses to do.
"We would certainly have more solid deliverables," he said. "Right now, we're not really sure how the grant is benefiting Maui County."
Council members said that they wanted more information about how the Planning Department would decide which projects would receive a share of the grant money. They also questioned whether the funding would go back to Wailuku Main Street if the organization eventually is cleared of suspicion by the attorney general's office.
"I think we're putting the cart before the horse," said Council Member Gladys Baisa. "It was told to us that we were awaiting the AG's opinion, and until we have that, I think it's going to be very difficult to decide what to do with this money, other than just leaving it in a pot."
Budget Chairman Joe Pontanilla said that he intended to recommend adding a "proviso" to the funding, restricting it from being spent until the investigation is completed and the Planning Department provides a plan for how grants would be awarded.
Representatives of Wailuku Main Street Association were not present for Monday's hearing. But a number of board members and the group's executive director testified last week to ask the council to restore their grant of $243,000.
For the past several years, the county's grant has represented nearly 100 percent of the organization's funding, according the group's publicly reported tax forms.
Officials with the group denied that former board members have been denied access to records and information about the nonprofit's operation and finances - the claims that prompted the attorney general's investigation earlier this year.
They also said that their organization provided an important service representing the interests of small towns in the county's planning process.
But members of community groups in Wailuku, Makawao, Paia and Lahaina said Monday that they would rather see the money be made available to directly support programs and projects in small towns.
"The Makawao Community Association board strongly supports the money being retained by the Planning Department for use in small-town planning and events, rather than being distributed to the Wailuku Main Street Association," said former Planning Director and Makawao Community Association Vice President Mike Foley.
Projects that could benefit from the funds could include planning for public restrooms in Makawao, he said, or bringing "walkability" expert Dan Burden back to Maui to lead meetings to design better sidewalks for the town.
He said that his and other community groups have been "very active" working to revitalize Makawao, but that they have not received any help from Wailuku Main Street.
"They did do some work in Makawao, but it seemed that it had inadequate community support and was pretty unpopular," he said.
As planning director, Foley said that he tried to eliminate Wailuku Main Street's grant but was unsuccessful.
"I did not and have never supported the work done by the Wailuku Main Street Association," he said.
Josh Stone, a commercial property owner in Makawao and Paia, also supported the change in funding.
He said the economic growth and improvements in Maui's small towns over the past two years reflect the "deepening support" of the county's Planning Department for those programs.
"Given control to direct this budget, I believe they can provide even better service and resources," he said.
Stone acknowledged that he had served on the executive board of Wailuku Main Street until recently.
"To come up here and testify, I don't take that lightly," he said. "There's a reason why I resigned from the board."
Baisa asked Stone and Foley to clarify that they were asking not only for the county to support small towns but also to take away the money that had previously been designated for Wailuku Main Street.
"I just want to be clear that we're getting the message," she said.
"I think you're getting it," Stone answered.
Landowner Henry Spencer agreed, noting that he recently resigned as a board member of the Paia Main Street Association, a group organized by Wailuku Main Street.
The Paia Merchants Association is "a lot more representative of what the town is about, with a lot more people involved," he said.
"I think these funds that are in the budget can be much better spent by these smaller organizations that aren't top heavy, that don't have salaries that are sucking a lot of money out of this budget that is desperately needed to help with planning and permitting in the small towns," he said.
Alexa Betts Basinger, former chairwoman of the Maui
Redevelopment Agency, said the "phenomenal" success of Wailuku's First Friday was one example of what grass-roots community groups were accomplishing in Maui's small towns.
"This grant money will support many outstanding organizations," she said.
Helen Nielsen, who with her husband, Jonathan Starr, is a commercial landowner in Wailuku, said that the county's support for small towns "gives confidence to the businesses and landowners."
"With your support for these programs, it helps lift everyone up," she said. "It's a real investment in Maui County."
Lahaina Restoration Foundation Executive Director Theo Morrison said that Front Street's "Second Friday" celebration also had been a big success.
If the small-town planning funds became available to local groups like hers, Morrison said that she'd like to see some of it used to fund a master plan for Lahaina's harbor area.
"We'd like to ensure that it stays in the Planning Department," she said.
Council members expressed some concern about how planning officials would prioritize a deluge of requests for the funds, with Council Member Riki Hokama warning that community groups would "sense a rainbow pot of gold, and they're all going to apply."
But Council Member Elle Cochran, who holds the council's West Maui seat, called the funding proposal "a wonderful thing," adding that she liked Morrison's idea for a master plan of Lahaina's waterfront.
"I feel it's a great idea, hint-hint," she said, eyeing Planning Department staff. "It's definitely needed."
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.