WAILUKU - The Maui County Council gave initial approval of a $559 million county budget Tuesday, with the spending plan including water and property tax rate increases along with more funding for most nonprofit organizations and a new reduced monthly bus pass rate for people with disabilities.
The council rejected a last-minute attempt by Council Member Mike Victorino to grandfather in a lower water meter fee for some of those on the Upcountry water meter waiting list. Victorino's measure would have affected those who were added to the list between Nov. 1, 2001, and Oct. 5, 2012, the latter being the date when higher fees were formally proposed to the council.
Those on the list prior to Oct. 31, 2001, are already protected from any fee increase. Members who voted against the measure said they wanted to more thoroughly discuss the matter in committee instead of on the council floor.
Council members need to approve the budget June 6 on second-and-final reading before it can advance to Mayor Alan Arakawa for final action. The fiscal 2014 budget will go into effect July 1.
All eight council members who were present at Tuesday's meeting in the Council Chambers voted in favor of the budget. Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa was absent and excused.
The $559 million council budget is $15 million less than what was submitted by Arakawa in March.
Although council members tweaked and changed various portions of the mayor's proposal, they went along with Arakawa's proposed 5 percent across-the-board water rate hikes. They also reduced the amount of real property tax rate increases proposed by Arakawa.
Although the mayor would have kept the homeowners' tax rates unchanged at $2.75 per $1,000 of net taxable assessed valuation, under the council's version, homeowners' rates will rise to $2.87.
Overall, most real property tax categories will see varying increases from a low of 5 cents to a high of 25 cents per $1,000. The residential category will see no increase under the council proposal. That classification usually includes second homes used as rentals.
The budget includes a 3 percent across-the-board increase in funding for most nonprofit organizations. And, council established a new monthly bus pass fee for people with physician-certified disabilities. This group will pay $30 a month. Currently, disabled riders may pay $45 a month for general boarding passes.
The council was able to keep its version of the budget lower than Arakawa's because the Budget and Finance Committee nearly halved Arakawa's request for new positions and cut some funding for equipment and programs. It also shot down increases in permitting fees in the Planning Department.
Overall, the council's proposed budget contains around $88 million for capital improvement projects, about $3 million less than in the mayor's proposed budget, and an operating budget of about $471 million, about $12 million less than proposed by Arakawa.
While the council unanimously approved of the budget, Council Member Riki Hokama continued to express concerns, saying that although tourism numbers are picking up and some economists are optimistic about the future, the economy is still not back on its feet, especially in the private sector. So, he advocated conservative spending.
"There is a capacity of what we can afford," Hokama said.
Although the budget was the heavyweight item on Tuesday's agenda, much of the meeting focused on Victorino's Upcountry water meter waiting list bill. Victorino sought to keep water development fees at current levels for those added to the list from Nov. 1, 2001, to Oct. 5, 2012.
Victorino said residents affected by his bill would otherwise face a doubling of fees from $6,030 for a standard 5/8ths-inch meter to $12,060.
Victorino's proposal died after a 3-5 vote. Council members voting in favor of the measure were Victorino and Stacy Crivello as well as Don Guzman, who voted "yes" with reservations. Council members opposed to the measure were Elle Cochran, Don Couch, Riki Hokama, Mike White and Bob Carroll.
While arguing in favor of his proposal, Victorino pointed out those on the meter waiting list prior to Nov. 1, 2001, already have a grandfathered fee.
"I think this is only fair. Others should be protected as well," he said.
Victorino, the council's Water Resources Committee chairman, added that the lower fee would apply to no more than three lots, so no developer could take advantage of his proposal.
The bill would have affected approximately 1,250 water meter applicants who were on the Upcountry water meter waiting list between Nov. 1, 2001, and Oct. 5, 2012.
Late last year, council members approved a bill to terminate the Department of Water Supply's 18-year-old waiting list for Upcountry water meters. As of June 30, the list had nearly 1,500 applicants.
Budget Director Sandy Baz confirmed that Victorino's bill would not have an effect on the overall proposed budget for fiscal 2014.
Baz said that if the bill passed, it would have an effect on future projects because the funds from the water meter fees would have an impact on the water department's development fund.
Water Director Dave Taylor concurred that the bill would have an impact on the water department's future projects and improvements.
In responding to a question from a council member, Taylor said that water rates may have to be raised in the future to make up for the lost funds if Victorino's bill were to pass.
Victorino said he also would have preferred to discuss the matter in committee, but he said that action needed to be taken while the budget remained before the council. After the budget passes, only the Arakawa administration would be able to seek a budget amendment.
Corporation Counsel Pat Wong agreed with Victorino's assessment.
After the meeting, Victorino said he would continue to discuss the matter of water meter fees in committee, as suggested by fellow council members.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.