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Council 2020-21 budget passes first reading

$819M budget a product of pandemic, members say

The Maui County Council passed on first reading an $819.3 million budget that residents praised for keeping funding for social services intact despite the economic struggles of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The council’s fiscal year 2020-21 budget trimmed about $52 million from the mayor’s original proposal. It’s expected to be up for final reading at the council’s June 5 meeting.

“Certainly, this is a budget that reflects the sign of the times, a budget that’s been heavily influenced by the effects of COVID-19,” Council Member Mike Molina said Tuesday. “Even still with all of the challenges, funding has been provided to maintain our core services, support for our small businesses, especially those in agriculture, and of course the many nonprofits who provide important health and human services for our kupuna, keiki and those in need.”

Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino unveiled his $869.8 million budget in late March, right around the time that coronavirus cases were growing and the county’s stay-at-home order went into effect.

“We came into this budget like right at the periphery of the COVID-19, and so we got a budget that included a lot of revenue that all of a sudden we weren’t going to have,” Council Member Kelly King said. “We’ve always talked about not needing to go through the budget with a fine-tooth comb, but we really needed to do that this year. That’s how we cut out $52 million.”

To save money, the Economic Development and Budget Committee asked all departments to make at least 5 percent cutbacks, committee Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez said in her report. The committee focused on funding shovel-ready projects and reduced funding for expansion positions and programs that could be deferred to the next fiscal year. They also reduced expenses like travel, office furniture and unnecessary equipment.

The budget largely keeps social service grants under the Department of Housing and Human Concerns intact, with the highest reduction a $50,000 cut to Hale Makua’s original $350,000 grant. Homeless programs were allocated $1.6 million, with up to $100,000 to be used to feed Maui County’s unsheltered through local nonprofits.

Figuring that residents would likely need more help securing affordable housing than purchasing a home during the pandemic, the budget committee also reduced the First-Time Homebuyers Program from $3 million to $2 million and bumped the Affordable Rental Housing Program from $1.4 million to $2 million.

Members also boosted revenue for housing by recommending that 4 percent of real property taxes go toward the Affordable Housing Fund; the Maui County Charter requires at least 2 percent. Funding includes up to $2 million for affordable housing on Lanai, up to $4 million for Hale Mahaolu to acquire the 62-unit Lokenani Hale affordable senior rental housing, up to $1.5 million for Ikaika Ohana to acquire and design the 64-unit Kaiaulu O Halelea multifamily rental project in Kihei and up to $4.3 million for Liloa Senior Housing to plan and build a 150-unit Liloa Hale multifamily senior rental project.

Victorino had included $10 million for a grant to help address COVID-19 impacts, and the council’s budget keeps this funding intact, while setting aside $1 million for the rural districts — $350,000 each to Molokai and Lanai and $300,000 for East Maui. 

Victorino also had proposed a $3.5 million grant for the Maui Visitors Bureau. While the Cost of Government Commission recommended zero funding for the bureau, the council’s budget committee settled on a $1.5 million grant, “noting that tourism is the county’s main economic driver and the industry has been hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.” The budget also includes funding for other industries, such as agriculture and food sustainability, including $2.5 million for the Maui Economic Opportunity agricultural micro grants program for farmers.

The four testifiers who spoke during the online meeting were generally supportive of the budget.

“I was expecting cuts given the reduction in revenue,” said Liz Fujii, executive director of Molokai Child Abuse Prevention Pathways. “And so I want to thank you for the effort you’ve put forth to be very precise in reviewing the budget and the needs for the county. It’s a relief to be able to go into this time of increased need without a slashed budget.” 

Tom Blackburn-Rodriguez, a consultant for Go Maui, supported the funding for affordable housing and the creation of a relief program for residents. 

“Your budget demonstrates a recognition that we are only at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and that funds need to be set aside for what will surely be an increase in COVID-19 deaths . . . and economic disruption in the next many months,” he said. 

Council Member Riki Hokama supported the budget with reservations, saying he had concerns about some calculations as well as how some phrases could leave “great flexibility and interpretation” to the administration.

Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura also voted yes with reservations, mostly due to the approval of salary raises for council staff while other departments were being asked to make cuts.

Rawlins-Fernandez said that the salaries had already been approved before the pandemic hit, and that staff deserved the raises. She said she would look into Hokama’s concerns before the next meeting.

“I will continue to work hard to make sure everything is set for us for second and final reading and that everyone will feel good about the vote . . . and we’ll be able to support the work we all did together,” she said.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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