Recently, I received an email from a friend sharing their angst as to our county government having “No leadership, no great vision for the future, little competency, and a stubborn unwillingness to change.”
While my friend acknowledged that there were some “bright spots” and a few good people trying to do good things, her lament focused primarily on the bar being set so low. It seems our county leaders do not believe bold action or meaningful changes are possible. Consequently, none occur, and few are even attempted. The voices of the naysayers and Debbie Downers always seem to drown out those who seek out-of-the-box solutions.
I have to say that I agree. My experience serving on the County Council is that most who hold leadership positions are consumed with just doing the day-to-day management and putting out the myriad of little fires that break out daily within any organization. Most departments are under-resourced, with insufficient staff needed to expand their work load.
The elected leaders, for the most part, prefer to operate in the “safe zone” of simply doing what has always been done. They will fight over balancing the budget and advocate “efficiency and budget cuts,” yet, it inevitably passes without meaningful cuts.
The costs of personnel will always be the major budget expense, and cutting “live bodies” (as they say in government budget jargon) is politically impossible in a small community where everyone is your friend and a voter.
The alternative to cutting the budget is to find more revenue, which translates to increasing taxes. This is also politically problematic, as people who cannot serve without first getting elected are loath to cut people’s jobs and raise taxes.
Therein lies the conundrum. Any new idea or program will likely cost money, and there are only two ways to find the money — cutting costs (jobs) or raising taxes — both an anathema to electeds.
The answer is creativity. To have any real chance of even attempting new programs or ideas, they must not involve any new expenses, and/or the money needed to implement them must be raised from sources that do not impact voters.
While working within these limitations certainly increases the challenge, solutions forthcoming within these parameters are not impossible.
1) Affordable rental housing: Freezing/deferring future property tax increases that normally would be incurred from the added value created by the construction of a new rental unit on existing residential lots. This is not current tax income and will not become tax income unless the landowner builds. The county could say to individual homeowners: “If you build a new rental unit on your property, and certify in writing that it will only be rented at set ‘affordable rates’ for a period of 10 years, then the county will waive the property taxes that would otherwise be normally due for that same period (that are associated with the new construction).”
If these savings were combined with the waiving of water meter hook-up fees and other county fees associated with building permits, the savings could tally up to be a significant factor and thus motivate the construction of new affordable rental units. This proposal would have a “revenue neutral” impact on the county budget and potentially create new affordable housing, and lead to economic development.
2) Large affordable housing projects: The same concept described in #1 above can be used for the construction of infrastructure associated with large residential projects either for rent or for sale. Again, this mechanism has no negative financial impact on the county budget. The larger project funding mechanism is known as Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tax_increment_financing
3) Taxing rental cars: The state reserves the legal authority to tax car rentals, BUT the county can effectively do the same thing via its property tax system. The county does not have legal authority to raise the daily rental car tax rate, but could instead create an additional “use classification” for properties used for car rentals, then modestly increase the property taxes, which the companies would pass on to the user (the tourist renting the car) at a rate which might translate to a $5 per day increase for each car rented. This equals revenue to the county as if it has raised the daily rental car tax rate. Is it simple? No. Can it be done? Absolutely. Actually, utilizing the county property tax on “use” mechanism could be applied to all kinds of activities that are unhealthy or otherwise should be discouraged (think alcohol, guns, chemically intensive farming methods, etc.), and upon which the county technically has no legal authority to tax.
Just a few ideas and a little out-of-the-box thinking, combined with the political will to explore new options, could open up a whole new world of options for our county.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.