(BIVN) – Philosophical differences on how to best pay for government services in a time of a volcanic eruption were on public display during last week’s Hawaii County Council meeting in Hilo. The council failed to agree on a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
The debate divided Puna’s two elected council representatives, Jen Ruggles and Eileen O’Hara. Even before the lower East Rift Zone eruption began in Leilani Estates and ravaged Puna, the two councilmembers were on opposite sides of a proposal to enact a county-level general excise tax.
Ruggles opposses the GE Tax. “We just increased the minimum tax, we just increased the fuel tax, we just increased the property tax,” Ruggles said during the discussion, “all of these taxes are regressive taxes. They’re impacting the poorest of the poor the most. The GE tax is the most regressive of these taxes. This should be the last tax that we look at.”
County coffers are expected to take a hit this yer. Property tax collections are forecast to drop due to the eruption in Puna, where an estimated 600 homes have been lost to lava.
Ruggles took aim at O’Hara, who supports the GE Tax plan. “I’m actually really surprised that the council member representing the district of the displaced people would say that now that we’re losing that property tax income, let’s tax them at the register,” Ruggles said. “I don’t find that acceptable.”
“It pains me greatly to see what’s happening in my district,” O’Hara responded, her voice strained with emotion. “It pains me to raise taxes, but they will not receive support from us if we don’t have any money. That’s a simple fact. You can talk about this is the most regressive tax ever, blah blah blah blah blah. Yes, that’s textbook correct. But that doesn’t reflect the reality of what is on the ground.”
“I have been living this,” O’Hara told Ruggles. “I know you don’t live in the lower Puna district. I realize you represent upper Puna. But I do, and every household that’s impacted; I know almost every one of them. So this is my community and my community has talked to me, and they said they wanted the half percent increase before all this started. Because they wanted a bus system. They wanted to provide for the neediest of the needy in our community. We cannot do that when our coffers are empty.”
Hilo councilmember Aaron Chung commented that he has “seen a big change” in O’Hara over the last few weeks. “You know, been kind of edgy. No offense,” Chung said. “I know she’s being deeply affected by what’s going on, and you know – she’s just an example, probably, of everything that all of those people down there are having to put up with. I gotta say, [post traumatic stress disorder] is the first thing that comes to my mind.”
Chung said he believes O’Hara is going through a lot. “She’s only doing what she believes is in the best interest of both her community and the island as a whole,” Chung said.
The council failed to pass an amended budget, which means Mayor Harry Kim’s plan – which includes estimated revenues and appropriations of $518,004,985 – will take effect in July. The council will take up another vote on establishing a one-quarter (.25) percent general excise and use tax surcharge at its next meeting.