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House finance chair: New Maui jail a priority

Top House Finance Committee members visit island

State House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke discusses funding for Maui projects Wednesday during a committee visit to Maui Memorial Medical Center. Members spent three days on Maui this week touring sites receiving state funding. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

WAILUKU — A new jail in Puunene could be given higher priority for funding over a new Oahu Community Correctional Center, and newly obtained rental car surcharge fees could be put toward road expansion projects this coming legislative session, top leaders of the powerful state House Finance Committee said Wednesday.

“Going forward, one of the major priorities for Maui will be a new jail site. Because right now, as you know the current (jail) is within a community. We are looking at relocating,” said House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke in between her committee’s site visits this week on the Valley Isle.

The chairwoman of the House money committee said that the new Maui jail will help resolve critical bed space and capacity issues. Department of Public Safety officials have cited those issues as key factors in igniting a riot on March 11 that caused millions of dollars in damage.

Maui Community Correctional Center, the island’s only jail, has been overcrowded for years. With an operational capacity of 301 beds, inmate totals have reached nearly 500 in the past, with inmates sleeping on floors next to toilets.

Luke said that a new jail site also is a priority of Maui Rep. Kyle Yamashita, who heads the capital improvement projects subcommittee in the House Finance Committee.

State House Finance Committee members listen to a presentation by Maui Health System CEO and Administrator Michael Rembis at Maui Memorial Medical Center Wednesday. As part of its operational transfer agreement two years ago, Maui Health System receives partial operating subsidies from the state to ease the hospitals’ transition from being government-managed to privately managed. Rembis said his goal is to make that subsidy go down each year. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Yamashita, who also joined the tour Wednesday, said funding has been allotted for sewer work and pointed to the final environmental impact statement released this past summer for the master plan of Pulehunui, which would include the new jail.

The EIS detailed a plan for water, wastewater and roadways to service state-owned lands in Pulehunui, where state departments will have offices and program space, commercial lots and the new jail.

Luke said House priorities differ from the state administration’s, which is focused on relocating the overcrowded Oahu Community Correctional Center, the largest inmate facility in the state.

“We don’t think that’s ready to move,” Luke said.

“We have been looking at this issue for a while,” she said. “At least the House priority will be the Maui jail.”

Members of the state House Finance Committee visited Maui Memorial Medical Center on Wednesday as the panel toured Maui sites that are state funded. Maui Health System, which operates Maui Memorial, Kula Hospital and Lanai Community Hospital, received $22.5 million from the state for operations in the current fiscal year. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The House Finance Committee arrived on Maui on Wednesday for three days, visiting various sites that receive state funding. They included Kahului Airport, Iao Valley State Park and the University of Hawaii Maui College.

On Wednesday, committee members toured Maui Memorial Medical Center, which is part of Maui Health System, an affiliate of Kaiser. Maui Health System also operates Kula Hospital and Lanai Community Hospital.

This past session, the Legislature appropriated $22.5 million to Maui Health System for the current fiscal year, which began July 1 and runs to June 30.

The subsidy is down from the $28 million last fiscal year and the $36.8 million the quasi-public Hawaii Health Systems Corp. was receiving before the transition to Maui Health System.

As part of its operational transfer agreement two years ago, Maui Health System receives partial operating subsidies from the state to ease the hospitals’ transition from being government managed to privately managed.

Rep. Kyle Yamashita, who represents Pukalani, Makawao and Kula, heads the capital improvement projects subcommittee of the state House Finance Committee. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

In a presentation to Finance Committee members Wednesday, Maui Health System CEO and Hospital Administrator Michael Rembis said that they “want to make sure that subsidy goes down every year.”

“That is our goal. That is a goal we are doing a good job in achieving,” Rembis told lawmakers.

Noting the improvements, Rembis said hospital departments now have budgets; there are fewer traveling nurses and more nurses who live on Maui, which reduces costs; and the hospital is hiring more physicians, which keeps more patients and procedures on Maui.

Maui Health System had requested a higher subsidy, $26 million, for the current fiscal year. Gov. David Ige had pared the subsidy to $20.5 million and the Legislature approved $22.5 million.

Maui Health System officials said they would be seeking $19 million from the state in operating funds for fiscal 2021.

Maui Health System CEO and Administrator Michael Rembis gives members of the state House Finance Committee an overall view of changes and future plans for Maui Memorial Medical Center, Kula Hospital and Lanai Community Hospital on Wednesday. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

If there was enough money to go around, legislators would, of course, want to fund services and programs to their fullest, but it turns out that it doesn’t “quite pencil out” that way, Luke said.

The same situation also applies to funding schools. Luke said the Legislature must look at the entire needs of the state.

“We have to do our own analysis of what is sufficient,” she said.

Luke said that the subsidy Maui Health System is receiving is higher than projected numbers offered by Kaiser prior to the transition. But during his presentation, Rembis told committee members that those old projected numbers were done two years prior to the transition and that costs grew during that time.

He also noted how the transition was delayed for a year over union contracts and workers transitioning from the state to the private entity, which also added on costs.

On the hospital and other Maui County needs, Luke praised the work of county legislators.

“I do have to say, the Maui legislators, they do a really good job working as a team and fighting for lots of the needs in Maui.”

She also commended Yamashita for finding “a creative way to put in more money into the highway fund.”

Becoming law July 1, the rental motor vehicle surcharge tax grew by $5 a day. This money is going into the state highway fund to help pay for capacity roadway projects, legislators said. New road projects have been on the back burner with the state Transportation Department focusing on highway maintenance projects.

Money generated from the surcharge increase could be appropriated to projects this coming legislative session, Luke said.

She added that about 65 percent of revenues for the state highways fund comes from Oahu residents, but 60 percent of that fund gets used on the Neighbor Islands. That’s because major roads on the Neighbor Islands are state roads while many major roads on Oahu are county owned.

Fuel taxes, which have been diminishing due to electric and more fuel efficient vehicles, feed the highways fund.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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