(BIVN) – The administrations’ apparent disfavor with a fund used to buy Hawaiʻi Island land for public preservation cast a cloud of concern over Monday’s meeting of the commission charged with prioritizing future purchases.
The county-controlled fund is referred to as the 2% Land Fund, since 2% of collected real property taxes go into the fund. The money is used to buy privately-held property valued for its natural and/or cultural significance, according to a priority list developed by the Public Access, Open Space, and Natural Resources Commission. The PONC commission is appointed by the mayor and approved by the Hawaiʻi County Council.
Mayor Harry Kim sees the land fund as a hindrance during tough fiscal times. In this year‘s budget message to the County Council, Kim talked about the fund as it relates to the needs of his administration:
As required by Hawai‘i County Charter, two percent of real property tax collections go to the Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation (PONC) fund. These monies are utilized to purchase lands or easements for public access, open space and natural resources preservation. We currently have the highest percentage in the state going towards this purpose. The next highest county contributes only one percent. Currently $6.3 million dollars is directed to this fund in the proposed budget. While maintaining precious lands on our island is important, this is a significant amount of money that goes towards this use that could not be used for our critical needs noted above.
Mayor Kim talked about the land fund over a year ago, during interview with Big Island Video News.
Land fund advocates see the writing on the wall. Debbie Hecht, who years ago helped get the land fund going, wrote on her website:
MAYOR Harry KIM IS LOOKING FOR WAYS TO BALANCE THE BUDGET. The 2% Land fund is only $5 million per year. He is saying that the choice is to either the raise the GET tax (sales tax) or take the Land Fund. He and the Hawaii County Council have already raised the gas tax and property taxes. Raising the GET tax will get approximately $25 million per year; taking the 2% Land Fund is only $5 million. How does this compute? 2% of property taxes is really only 1.5% of the income stream of the County, can’t county money be managed better TO LEAVE THE LAND FUND ALONE? We voted for the Land Fund 3 times and each time 63% of people who voted on the measure, voted YES!
Hecht’s concerns reached the PONC commission in time for their meeting on Monday in Hilo, where commissioners had the chance to question officials about the direction of the administration.
“I have been hearing rumors that there might be changes in the financing of this program and I was wondering if you could update us on any of that,” commissioner Rick Warshauer asked Hawaii County Property Manager Hamana Ventura.
“Mayor Kim said from the first day that he took office is that he’d like to look at other options going forward,” Ventura answered, “and he’s gone on record to say that if he has the ability to reduce the fund in order to help balance the budget, it’s an option that he he would look into.”
“As far as Finance (Department),” Ventura continued, “them telling us where we’re going with this: it’s status quo. We’re moving along the same lines. We haven’t been told anything to the fact that the fun balance is going to be reduced.”
“So this means that the negotiations are proceeding as rapidly as as they can,” Warshauer asked, “and as council members are submitting resolutions to spur them on?”
“I was in council the week before last and we had we had submitted the annual report,” Ventura responded, “and one of the questions that came up is, are you guys putting the brakes on the program, or are you slowing down? And the answer is no. We had total of 14 purchases over the life of the program… starting in 2006… but it’s taken on more purchases, more life, as the program has matured. It’s coming down to just about a purchase per year.”
“We’re going to end up with with two purchases by the end of the year on Harry’s first term,” Ventura said. “The fund is growing. Currently we’re at a little over $16 (million) in the PONC fund and $2.3 (million) in the maintanance fund. As we move through our annual collections the funds keep growing.”
“My concern is that if the fund grows faster than we can spend, it’s just a tempting target to be raided,” Warshauer said. “We’ve seen that at the state legislature, with repeated efficiency, and I’m concerned that we might lose the opportunity to acquire lands if we’re not acquiring them faster. And I was wondering if you could suggest how the process might be speeded up a little.”
“I cannot comment,” Ventura answered. “I don’t have an opinion, one way or another, how to speed up the process or why acquisitions are considered slower than they are. It’s just the process, in itself, is something that we’re proceeding along in a normal fashion.”
“It is my understanding that the fund was established through an electoral process, a charter amendment,” said commissioner Rene Siracusa. “Do we have time now, even… to put something on the ballot, and would it then be on the 2018 ballot? Or would be on the 2020 ballot? So would it effect this year’s budget, or would it not be effective until two more years hence?”
“Right now, I think we’re getting really far fetched from the agenda,” County Corporation Counsel deputy Amy Self reminded the commission, “but for that particular question, I’m not sure that would be something that we would have to ask the County Council, because they’re the ones that would bring it as a proposed charter amendment, and it would depend on their calendar. It takes three readings by the County Council, I believe, before it can even be put on the ballot for this year. So I don’t know what kind of timeline, timeframe, we’re looking at right now.”
“The reason that Rick and I were both concerned is because there is someone who has been sending out a series of very manic, panicky kind of emails,” Siracusa said. “She’s sending this out to a pretty large email address book. And so there’s gonna be a lot of people who are starting to panic. And this has to do about this
rumor that Harry wants to reduce the fund, and how quickly it could happen, and that sort of thing.”
“I think that that is up to the administration to respond, not this commission,” Self said. “Your duty and responsibility is how its stated in the county code. And that is, at least once a year, you have to make this priority list.”