Council outlines 2015 priorities

LIHUE — The calendar has turned to 2015, and County of Kauai officials are looking at the new year with a list of fresh — and sometimes ongoing — goals.

Tackling drug use, siting a new landfill, creating more job opportunities, funding sustainable transportation alternatives and reforming the county’s real property tax system are just a few that individual officials say they want to tackle over the next year.

Many of them, however, were united in focusing on two in particular: affordable housing opportunities and fiscal stability.

“Hopefully we can get over all of these other issues that took up a lot of our attention, like (Bill) 2491 and what have you,” County Council Vice Chair Ross Kagawa said. “We need to start focusing on getting back to basics and taking care of our roads and our parks. Right now, a lot of people are upset with the county — we’ve got to get the people’s faith back in the county, and it doesn’t come by just words. We’ve got to do it through actions.”

Perhaps one of the most significant game changers in 2015, Kagawa said, will be a newly elected majority on the seven-member board, which tilted when Arryl Kaneshiro and KipuKai Kualii unseated longtime members Tim Bynum and Jay Furfaro in the General Election.

“I think the past two years for me were very rough — for the past two years, me and Mel (Rapozo) were losing a lot of votes by 5 to 2,” Kagawa said. “Thankfully, the election has changed the tide, so now I think we’ll have a chance to do what we thought was right for the community — the voters showed that in the election. I’m very hopeful and optimistic that things will get better.”

Still, despite these differences, there are common threads that bind the board together.

Councilman Gary Hooser said in an email that he has three main objectives over the next year: reduce the property tax burden on homeowners; aggressively expand the available inventory of affordable housing through public/private partnerships; and ensure that “the very largest businesses in Kauai County are complying with the laws governing property taxes and (grading and grubbing).”

The availability of affordable housing is something many officials agree should be a key priority.

“The problem of affordable housing has worsened despite our valiant efforts,” Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura wrote in an email.

Pursuing this goal, however, comes with an important caveat, said Councilman Arryl Kaneshiro.

“There is a need for development because there is a housing need, so if we need houses, we need to develop — they’re not just going to show up,” Kaneshiro said. “It all comes down to being responsible — having someone responsible do it and having the traffic worked out to allow them to do it. So many people here rent and we all know about the high cost of living, and it’s because we know there is a shortage of housing.”

In 2014, county officials made some headway by breaking ground on two key housing projects, Kolopua at Princeville and Rice Camp Senior Housing. Once complete, the two are slated to open up a total of 104 affordable housing units, Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. wrote in an email.

“I believe that if we all come together with the best interests of our entire community at heart, with each of us putting our unique and valuable set of skills to work for the benefit of our community … and if we have trust and faith in our leaders that the result of our efforts will be fair and equitable to all, then we can be assured that, at the end of the day, at the end of the hukilau, there will be enough catch for all, and we, as a community will be stronger, more connected and more resilient,” Carvalho wrote in an email. “This is the spirit that will move me forward for the next four years.”

What could prove to be one of the county’s biggest challenges, some officials say, is crafting a balanced budget come March, when Carvalho delivers his proposal to the council.

“For me, I’m willing to work with the administration in trying to balance the budget,” Kaneshiro said. “Just based on the current financial crisis, we’re not in the best shape, so there’s going to be a lot of cost cutting. It’s hard to say, but I know we don’t have an overabundance of money, so it will be difficult.”

The nearly $179.2 million budget approved by Carvalho and the County Council in May included several tax increases, such as those for real property tax rates and vehicle weight taxes, and about $800,000 in spending cuts.

That budget, which ends on June 30, also included a $1.5 million reduction in annual health benefit contributions for retired county employees, which county officials will have to pick up in the future. About $9 million in collective bargaining raises for county employees must also be factored into this year’s budget.

“Our budget will be a big focus for the coming year,” Councilman Mason Chock Sr. wrote in an email. “This will start with prioritizing our goals and necessities by working collaboratively between all branches of government. Key to a sustainable budget is to keep county spending to a limit and to increase our capacity and competency of our operations. Focusing on leadership development for our county and community will be paramount.”

Some officials, however, say the message that voters made during this year’s election was clear.

“We need to show the people of Kauai that we can control our spending,” Kagawa said. “This is going to be a tough budget, but I think we have a new elected majority that feels the same. We’ve got to stop the continued growth of spending, and I think we’ll have no problems getting agreement, at least with four people, on that issue.”

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