Council defers action on smoke-free bill

The Kaua’i County Council yesterday deferred action on a bill to ban smoking in restaurants and public places to protect workers from secondhand smoke.

The decision made at a council meeting at the historic County Building came partly after a Kaua’i restaurant owner publicly came out against the bill for the first time since it was introduced in recent months.

Joe Batteiger, owner of Joe’s on the Green in Po’ipu, said the bill was not timely because of the unsteady nature of the America and Japanese economy after the Sept.11 terrorist attack. The bill also would hurt his “open-air” restaurant, he said.

The council also withheld action in response to a complaint by resident Andy Parx that people should be able to see any amendments to the bill before any council action takes place.

Parx also said amendments should be discussed at the committee level first.

Siding with Batteiger’s argument the bill could hurt “open-air restaurants,” Al Rugendorf, an attorney and a non-smoker, said “outside area prohibition, no matter how well-intentioned… is overly restrictive and has direct economic impact.”

Batteiger said his restaurant converts into a bar in the early afternoon till evening, during which 95 percent of his business is generated. A ban that would apply to open-air restaurants would create major financial problems for him, Batteiger said.

The Hawaii Restaurant Association also urged the council not to pass a bill regulating smoking in restaurants and outdoor public areas.

Parx urged the council not to take action for a different reason, noting the public should be given sufficient time see and evaluate any amendments before council action is taken. For his part, Kouchi said he agreed with Parx’s stand.

Councilman James Tokioka, who introduced the bill, said, however, that Parx and other residents were made aware of forthcoming amendments in past meetings.

Tokioka has been praised by many residents and anti-smoking groups for proposing the legislation.

But they want deletion of a clause that would exempt a handful of small Kaua’i restaurants that employ a small number of family members.

Kouchi and councilman Randal Valenciano have suggested forwarding an amendment to eliminate the exemption and have a total ban on smoking at restaurants regardless of their size. The legislation, however, is not intended to affect enclosed bars.

Anti-smoking groups, residents who say they were victims of secondhand smoke and state Department Health officials lined up in one camp urging the council to pass legislation without exemptions.

Dr. Bruce Anderson, who heads the state Department of Health, flew to Kaua’i to attend the meeting to urge the council to approve that type of legislation.

Considering the severe health hazards connected with continuous exposure to secondhand smoke, Anderson said “common sense would dictate that the actions would have been taken long before this ban on smoking, in situations where people were involuntarily exposed.”

He said people die from “being exposed to cigarette smoking, whether they are smokers or not.”

Anderson said the council bill is a “a good proposal” and that he hoped the Big Island would consider Kaua’i’s bill, without the exemption, in the future. Honolulu and Maui County already have anti-smoking laws in place for restaurants and public spaces, but anti-smoking advocates say the Kaua’i version could be the strongest without the exemption.

Representatives for the American Cancer Society and the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii also expressed again their support for a law without exemptions.

Tobacco-Free Kauai and Smoke Free Hawaii Coalition also have voiced support for such a measure in recent meetings.

The council also received petitions signed by several hundred people supporting a bill without exemptions.

In a letter read by Janice Bond, an anti-smoking advocate from Kaua’i, Margery Bronster, a member of the board appointed by Gov. Ben Cayetano for the Hawaii Tobacco Settlement Trust Fund, said she also supports a Kaua’i bill that would protect the health of employees and customers.

The focus of the trust is to establish priorities for a tobacco prevention and control program in Hawai’i.

Property tax assessments

In other matters, a bill proposed by Kouchi to freeze assessments at 2001 levels for single-family residential, homestead and agricultural classes to help residents keep property tax bills in check drew praise from other council members and residents.

The bill, if adopted, would enable people who live in their residences not “to be taxed off their land,” as a result speculation, for instance, Kouchi said.

“This is a major, major step in the right direction,” said councilman Gary Hooser. “People have talked about it for a long time.”

Other audience members like Glenn Mickens said the bill was long overdue but was better late than never.

Mickens and Robert Measel Jr. said they preferred to roll the assessments farther back than 2002 to give better property tax breaks . Measel said freezing of assessments back to the 1990s would work even better.

The bill initially called for using the 2002 assessments as a marker, but because they include numerous sales that pushed assessments up, it was decided that the 2001 assessments would be a better point from which to form the legislation.

In a letter to the council, Kouchi noted the current property tax revenues for the classes amount to $21 million, which will be carried over in the future tax year. The single-family residential class is anticipated to generate $9.22 million, the homestead, $5.39 million and agriculture, $6.45 million. l,

Councilman Bryan Baptiste said he has been working on the same issue with the county’s real property division in the last three months and pledged to come up with legislation that will provide optimum benefits.

Ann Punohu said the bill could be beefed up even more by including a freeze on rents on the island.

Hooser said the council has worked aggressively to reduce property taxes when it could, and hopes the legislation passes this year.

Kouchi said he, too, wants optimum benefits for residents, noting that if the bill is passed next January, the measure will go into effect in the subsequent tax year.

A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Oct. 10, council staffers said.

Staff Writer Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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