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The cost of cutting

LIHUE — A group of four Kauai County officials charged with trimming costs say they have identified close to $400,000 in salary and benefit savings for next year’s budget.

Those recommendations, crafted by a four-member vacancy review committee that studies hiring needs, include eliminating about 10 vacant positions, assigning lower salaries to a few more, and readjusting services across all county departments.

The findings come after department heads across the board were asked by the administration to cut their costs by $8.2 million to pay for increased costs in the county’s 2016 financial plan.

“About 80.3 percent of our costs for the county government are embedded within personnel and related expenses,” said County Purchasing Director Ernest Barreira Jr., who sits on the committee. “If we’re going to make a significant move toward downsizing, that is what we need to do.”

The committee was proposed by Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. early last year and convened in November. It also includes Department of Human Resources Director Janine Rapozo, Tax Manager Steve Hunt and Karen Matsumoto, a former county personnel management specialist.

Their goal is to reduce the size of government, if necessary; re-describe vacant positions to better meet the needs of operations; and serve as a sounding board for departments to look into whether positions or departments can be reorganized.

County Finance officials announced in January that the county could anticipate about $11.8 million in increased costs next year, including $8.9 million in anticipated collective bargaining raises for all unionized county employees. Department heads were asked to look for possible reductions within their own departments for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins on July 1.

Meeting at least once a week, the committee has reviewed 37 vacant positions county department heads were seeking to fill. They do not review vacant positions county department heads are not seeking to fill or are working to amend on their own.

Some county officials said the committee isn’t looking deep enough.

“I guess, for me, if you’re not reviewing all of the vacant positions, then I don’t see what the benefit will be,” Council Chair Mel Rapozo said. “If we’re only sending over the positions that you don’t think you’re going to fill, what’s the sense? I think a vacancy review committee should review all vacant positions to see if they’re actually necessary.”

A total of 23 employees across 10 county departments were hired between October and December. As of December, a total of 154 county positions were vacant, amounting to $2 million in salary savings for the current fiscal year.

But Barreira called the review process “a significant movement in the right direction.”

Department heads must justify why they need to hire someone to fill a vacant position that, in some cases, can be reassigned or eliminated. If a vacant position is eliminated, he explained, the department cannot fill it during that particular budget cycle.

“What helps us begin the discussion, when the departments come before the vacancy review committee, they are told to assume that the position has been eliminated, to convey to us the impacts, and how they plan to exercise whatever administrative initiatives are necessary to meet the demands of the position,” Barreira said.

Three specific types of employees are not subject to review by the review committee based on public safety needs, including uniformed police officers, firefighters and Ocean Safety Bureau employees.

“We’ve had some departments already make the conscious decision to say they know the budget situation … and are going to freeze, dollar fund or eliminate it on their own without even coming to us,” Rapozo said.

While the committee’s findings may only account for a fraction of the savings the county needs to identify by next fiscal year, some said that it’s a step in the right direction.

“I think it is critical, heading into the next budget session, that we have the administration do as much as they can on their end to, I guess, do more with less,” Council Vice Chair Ross Kagawa said. “That has got to be the goal when the county’s finances are struggling and people are saying they have concerns about property taxes and what have you.”

Other officials said real cost-cutting practices are part of a larger issue.

“We’ve really got to take a look at the bigger picture in what we’re agreeing to in our collective bargaining process because I think that’s where you’re going to see the difference in what we have control over,” Councilman Mason Chock Sr. said. “I know it’s a statewide issue, but we’ve got to address it somehow. That’s where, I think, our energy needs to flow.”

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