Tightening the belt

LIHUE — The Kauai County Council on Monday trimmed nearly $2.4 million from its budget in an attempt to stave off real property tax hikes for hotels and resorts and dips in funding for public access and open space projects over the next fiscal year.

The largest cuts, proposed by Councilmen Ross Kagawa and Mel Rapozo, will slash funding for employee health benefits by 5 percent, reduce travel expenses by $344,959 and save about $1.5 million by reducing contributions to employee health benefit funds for retired county employees.     

Those measures, according to preliminary county budget documents, comprised 90 percent of cost-cutting measures that were passed Monday — the first of two days dedicated to finalizing the county’s 2014-2015 fiscal year budget.

“I think my message to my colleagues is, as we go through these next two days, we have to start looking at what is essential and what is non-essential, what can we do without and what can’t we do without,” Rapozo said.

A straw poll taken at the beginning of Monday’s meeting set the tone for the rest of the day after a majority of County Council members voted to support three of five revenue enhancement measures proposed by Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr.’s administration.

The seven-member board unanimously voted in support of a measure to increase the county’s transient vacation rental fee from $500 to $750, but were split on increasing the county’s motor vehicle tax rate. Councilmen Rapozo and Gary Hooser cast the dissenting votes against that proposal.

Rapozo also cast the lone dissenting vote against a proposal that would raise the county’s non-residential tipping fee from $90 to $119 per ton for commercial deliveries. Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura, who cast a silent vote, sided with the majority of those who voted in favor of the measure.

“I think it’s important for the public know that we’re still listening and that this was not a final vote — it’s an indication of how we’re thinking at this particular moment of time,” Hooser said after casting his vote.

The proposal to reduce travel costs across all county departments by 5 percent — one of the more contentious cuts of the day — passed by a 4-3 vote and was supported by some council members who said the move is necessary when money is tight.

“I believe that we’re in tough times and I’ve seen the travel budgets grow more and more,” Kagawa said. “I believe that, if the travel is really important, departments can choose from other funds within their account.”

Other council members said some business trips, particularly those taken by county officials to the Legislature on Oahu, are key to advancing the county’s goals and initiatives.

“Not every department feels the same kind of pain,” said Yukimura, who voted against the measure with Council Chair Jay Furfaro and Councilman Tim Bynum. “Some are so tightened by their budget already.”

But not all budget proposals made the cut.

A proposal introduced by Kagawa to decrease overtime budgets across all county departments by 5 or 10 percent over the next fiscal year was also tabled to today’s meeting so the county’s finance department can provide more detailed breakdowns of overtime expenditures in the Kauai Police Department, Department of Public Works and Kauai Fire Department.

“I know, at some point, it is inevitable that we need to spend overtime, whether it be $1 million, $2 million, or what have you, but I’m just afraid for the future,” Kagawa said. “I mean, how much longer can we continue to increase overtime and say we can’t do anything about it.”

The County Council will make their final decisions on the 2014-2015 fiscal year budget today starting at 9 a.m. in the Historic County Building’s Council Chambers in Lihue.

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