Council rejects salary cap hike

LIHUE — Potential raises recommended for some top county officials may not be happening after all. 

The Kauai County Council on Wednesday narrowly rejected a Salary Commission proposal that would have increased the maximum salary limit for 22 department heads, including Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr., County Engineer Larry Dill and County Attorney Mauna Kea Trask.

“For me, it’s about context, it’s about the budget, and not whether the numbers are right or wrong — it’s about the fact that we haven’t had a balanced budget in this county for about five or six years,” Councilman Gary Hooser said before casting his vote against the recommendations. “I believe we need to stop that process and the only way to stop that process is to stop spending money until we get a balanced budget.”

A supermajority of the council — five — needed to vote no to deny the raise request. That meant two yes votes would have approved the measure on the seven-member council.

Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura cast the sole vote to approve the salary changes. 

“I think we have to distinguish between the position and the persons in the positions,” Yukimura said. “The positions, I believe, deserve executive-level pay because it’s important to attract and keep good talent. We need top-level problem-solvers and managers — without that, there’s a lot of waste and error and that’s where the biggest waste and unnecessary expenditures come in.” 

Rapozo was recused after disclosing that his brother, County Liquor Control Director Gerald Rapozo, was one of the department heads who may have seen their salary caps increased. 

All told, the maximum salaries for 53 top-level county employees, which are set and reviewed by the Salary Commission each year, amounted to nearly $4.9 million during the current fiscal year. The maximum salary hikes, totaling $150,265 for the 22 employees, would have bumped that amount to a little more than $5 million during the next fiscal year.

Under the proposal, the mayor’s salary cap would have increased to $122,504 from $114,490. The managing director’s would have increased to $117,911 from $110,197.

County Managing Director Nadine Nakamura said 39 of the 53 top-level county officials overseen by the Salary Commission receive the maximum salary allowed for their position.

“They are not automatically given,” Nakamura said of the maximum salaries. 

County Salary Commissioner Sheri Kunioka-Volz said she and other board members agreed to increase the salary caps for many of those employees who have not had a raise since 2008. 

“This was done in fairness to all employees to make things more equitable,” Kunioka-Volz said. “There are raises that were given five years ago, and this is to bring some areas up.” 

Councilman Arryl Kaneshiro, who served as the swing vote on approving the recommendations, initially said he would vote in favor of raising the salary caps but changed his mind, citing his concerns for the county’s financial state. 

“I’m pretty torn on this,” Kaneshiro said. “I do see the importance of having fair salaries and fair amounts. It’s a hard one. I know it’s coming on bad timing and we have a budget coming up — it’s going to be difficult to determine how this will affect the budget in its entirety.”

County Human Resources Director Janine Rapozo said the current salary caps have made it difficult, in some cases, to attract qualified applicants who could earn more money in a private sector position.

Some officials and residents, however, don’t see it that way. 

“To serve in government is a privilege, and one should not expect to be paid the same as corporate America or even other Hawaii counties — after all, we are the smallest of the big four Hawaii counties,” Kekaha resident Bruce Newport said. 

Now that the salary cap increases have been rejected, the Salary Commission may reconvene and it could offer a different proposal for the council to consider if the board’s chair, Randy Finlay, requests to schedule a meeting, county spokeswoman Beth Tokioka said.  

She said Wednesday no such request has been received.

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