Voters won’t decide Open Space fund

LIHUE — Councilman Gary Hooser came up empty Wednesday in his attempt to increase the amount of money that is set aside for the Open Space fund.

His plan to put a ballot proposal in front of voters in the 2016 election fell two votes short of the five needed to move forward with the resolution and to get a public hearing on the issue.

Councilmembers JoAnn Yukimura and Mason Chock voted to support the ballot proposal, which would have asked voters to set aside 1.5 percent of revenue collected from real property taxes specifically for The Public Access, Open Space, Natural Resources Preservation Fund. Money that goes into the fund, which is essentially a piggy bank, can be used to purchase land for public use, such as ensuring beach access, preserving historic sites and protecting environmentally sensitive areas.

“It is disappointing that four councilmembers, while each professing to support preserving open space and public access, would not even allow this proposal to have a public hearing.” Hooser said following the vote.

The County Charter currently requires 0.5 percent of real property tax revenue go into the Open Space fund, but for the past several years the county has set aside 1.5 percent for the account.

This year, they reduced it to 0.5 percent as a way to balance the budget.

During the hearing, Budget and Finance Chair Arryl Kaneshiro explained that he likes the flexibility of being able to decide whether to put more money into the account, or keep it at the minimum that is required under the County Charter.

“We’re still going to put money in,” Kaneshiro said, but “to tie our hands and say we are going to put in another $1 million into open space – where is that $1 million going to come from?”

Councilman KipuKai Kuali’i said that there are a lot of priorities that need to be addressed.

“As a native Hawaiian who loves the aina, open space access — that is critically important to me, but public safety, paving the roads, addressing traffic congestion, even the sewer discussion we had earlier this morning, that is more important to me.”

But Hooser called out what he sees as hypocrisy from those who argued in favor of letting voters decide on a ballot initiative when it comes to repealing term limits for the council, but not whether they want to increase funding to preserve natural spaces.

“Let the people decide, we hear that refrain a lot around this table,” Hooser said, “This lets the people decide, on the ballot, whether they want to invest a larger share of the budget” to protect natural areas.

Council Vice-Chair Ross Kagawa, who sponsored the term limits repeal ballot initiative, said it is an unfair comparison because Hooser’s plan has a budgetary impact, and that the county cannot afford it now.

“When the Open Space fund was increased by 1 percent to 1.5 percent, the county had a healthy fund balance, in the neighborhood of $50 million. Today our fund balance is under $10 million, and we have some obligations with salaries that will be coming up next year that will probably gobble up that entire amount.”

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