Property crime becomes a growing problem in Paia town

Establishing a special improvement district could raise money for security

Cars make their way along Hana Highway through Paia town in July 2010. Property crimes and vagrancy are a growing concern in the community dependent on visitor spending. • The Maui News file photo

Traffic congestion and parking in Paia still generate headaches for residents and visitors of the bustling former plantation town hugging Maui’s north shore, but now property crime — especially vehicle break-ins — are a rising concern.

Just last month at the Paia municipal parking lot, thieves smashed in the rear window of a sport utility vehicle rented by Brian and Tina Reiter of Kailua, Oahu. The Reiters parked in the lot on July 18 while they went to eat lunch before heading to the airport to return home. They lost all their luggage, including a combined 19 state long-course swimming championship medals won by their children, 14-year-old Jon and 13-year-old Jen.

To address thefts and other problems, including vagrancy, the Paia Town Association is looking at an 8-month-old Maui County ordinance to create a special improvement district in the town to fund a “clean and safe” program.

There already are special improvement districts in Waikiki and Kona.

Noelani Sugata, the association’s part-time executive director, said association members met with representatives of the Maui Police Department on June 21. They were told there’s only one officer assigned to the Paia area. And, if there’s an accident or incident in Haiku, for example, then the officer goes there, she said.

Council Chairman Mike White, whose residency area includes Paia, has been gathering community input for a special improvement district, but there was no draft bill earlier this month, his office staff said.

“We’re very concerned,” Sugata said.

But she credited police for starting to drive through the Paia parking lot early in the morning.

On Sunday, Maui Police Chief Tivoli Faaumu said there is a community police officer assigned to the Paia area, and that officer has been told to focus on crime in the town “because of the outcry of the community.”

However, much of that officer’s time has been spent coping with homelessness issues, the chief said.

Meanwhile, the Police Department has won a $625,000 federal grant over a three-year period from the U.S. Department of Justice under its “COPS” hiring program, said county Budget Director Lynn Araki-Regan.

The funding requires matching money from Maui County, and the combine funds would pay for five new police officers for a new Critical Outreach and Response through Education Unit, she said.

Those officers would relieve community police officers from addressing homeless issues and allow them concentrate on crime reduction and other duties, Faaumu said. The department also is working with the state Department of Health, Drug Court and others to cope with homeless issues.

A bill to amend this year’s budget to provide matching county funding for the new officers is pending before the County Council’s Budget and Finance Committee, Araki-Regan said.

Now, in the nearly 12 weeks since a sweep of homeless people out of the Baldwin Beach Park area, there’s been an increase of crime in Paia, Sugata said.

“We had a feeling it was going to happen,” she said.

Her observation is not just anecdotal.

According to police reports of property crimes in The Maui News’ Crime Watch column, there have been 66 car break-ins in the Paia area from Jan. 1 to Aug. 5. Thirty-five, or 53 percent, of those vehicle break-ins happened since the May 23 homeless sweep.

The Paia municipal parking lot has been a hot spot where victims reported 19 break-ins so far this year. More than half of those incidents (10) occurred after the nearby homeless eviction. Other Paia areas favored by thieves included Hookipa Beach Park (10 break-ins) and Paia Bay (five).

Vehicle break-ins in East Maui are not limited to Paia. Victims who had parked at Twin Falls and the Bamboo Forest in Haiku reported 33 and 23 break-ins, respectively, from Jan. 1 to Aug. 5.

Faaumu said the Police Department has responded to vehicle break-ins in East Maui by deploying Police Crime Reduction Unit officers who were assigned to the Twin Falls area. On Aug. 8, officers arrested a 35-year-old Wailuku man after he had been seen breaking into a window of a rental car at Twin Falls. The man tried to run but was apprehended. He was arrested in connection with first-degree unauthorized entry into a motor vehicle, fourth-degree criminal property damage, resisting arrest and three counts of second-degree endangering the welfare of a minor.

He was later released pending further investigation.

Faaumu said police are continuing to investigate, and it had not been determined whether the man may be a suspect in other vehicle break-ins.

In Paia town, Sugata said ideas considered for reducing property crimes include installing video surveillance at trouble spots and hiring a private mobile security guard.

“It’s not just break-ins” at the Paia parking lot, she said. “It’s a hangout, and sometimes there’s public intoxication. I personally haven’t seen drug deals in the area, but I’ve had people tell me they’ve seen needles in the surrounding areas. At one point, I had a guy pretending to be a parking attendant and asking for tips. I had to call police, and they made everyone leave, but they come back. I would like that area to be a safe and clean space.”

However, “We don’t have a whole lot of money,” she said.

County Department of Planning Deputy Director Michele Chouteau McLean is a Paia resident and a board member of the Paia Town Association.

She said she hasn’t seen anything happen in town, but in her neighborhood a home was burglarized, which was “really surprising” because the homes are situated closely together.

If a special improvement district were implemented in Paia town for a clean and safe program, there would be a voluntary assessment added to the real property tax bills of landowners within the district, she said. An early estimate has put the amount that would be generated at about $145,000 a year.

The county’s Real Property Tax Division would collect the money separately from property tax bills, and funds would go toward an entity created by the Paia Town Association to administer funds and pay for additional security or other district improvements, she said.

McLean said crime and homelessness have become a higher priority than traffic and parking in Paia.

Aside from security, special improvement district money could pay for power washing in town, installing trash cans and coordinating community events, such as small-business Saturday and “Paia Gives,” a charitable campaign, she said.

A special improvement district may be initiated by a Maui County Council member, or a community could petition to establish one with a certain percentage of property owners agreeing to do so, McLean said.

Council Chairman Mike White, whose residency area includes Paia, has been gathering community input for a special improvement district, but there was no draft bill earlier this month, his office staff said.

Sugata said the association has been trying to get the special improvement district started, but “we need everyone’s support.”

Maui County Council members passed enabling legislation for special improvement districts on Dec. 19. Mayor Alan Arakawa signed the measure Dec. 20.

The ordinance allows the County Council to levy, assess or collect special assessments to finance services and improvements or to issue bonds. The services may include security, landscaping, improved sanitation, advertising, promotion, marketing education and decorations and lighting for seasonal and holiday purposes.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.