LIHUE — From meetings and training sessions to goodwill ventures, county employees travel around the nation.
Recently, Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. and Randy Francisco, creative industries and small business coordinator, traveled to the East Coast to take part in Hawaii on the Hill in Washington, D.C., and to welcome the Hokulea as it sailed into the New York City Harbor.
All that traveling, of course, costs money.
The price tag to send both men to the East Coast was just about $9,000, which included airfare from Lihue to New York City, New York City to Washington, D.C., and Washington, D.C., back to Lihue. That tab also included hotels in both cities, per diem and gifts for the congressional delegation.
Carvalho left for the East Coast on June 13 and returned to Lihue on June 19. His official business ended one day earlier than Francisco’s.
Carvalho traveled “to the East Coast to meet with the congressional delegation to discuss partnerships, to demonstrate his support for local businesses at Hawaii on the Hill, to represent Kauai at the Hokulea event and to discuss future grant opportunities with federal agencies,” said Mary Daubert, Carvalho’s spokeswoman.
The county budgeted $775,000 for travel in fiscal year 2016, which ended June 30, and will spend slightly more on travel in its next budget.
During FY 2016, Carvalho took 42 trips to attend meetings, events and conferences. He often gets asked to speak at various events, mostly on Oahu.
“The mayor feels that it’s important for our employees to keep abreast of developments within the 16 functional areas of the county,” Daubert said. “Attending national and statewide training helps employees learn about new laws, programs and technologies. Many times, this translates into better programs and services to the public, innovation and a more efficient county government.”
Travel also helps county employees build relationships with their counterparts on other islands and the Mainland, which allows for an exchange in information and ideas, Daubert said.
Kauai sent one accounting employee to the 10th annual Government Finance Officers Association Conference in Ontario, Canada, in May; two police officers to Narcotics, Vice and Street Crimes Supervisor’s Training Seminar in Las Vegas in April; and one fire captain to the National Fire Academy, Executive Fire Officer Program in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Sometimes, employees travel because they are required to attend off-island meetings and training sessions. Because of that, 60 percent of the annual travel budget is allocated for training purposes, said Ken Shimonoishi, finance director.
Money is well spent if it’s used for training, said Kauai County Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura.
“Training is very important for county personnel to keep up with best practices and to keep current in skills and information,” she said. “Wherever possible and feasible, training online or on Kauai is preferable. But in some cases, travel is the best or only way to obtain training.”
Amount varies by year
The county travel budget includes all county departments and its employees, and doesn’t have an extra amount set aside for the mayor or other administrative officials.
Over the last five years, the travel budget has been between $615,000 to $779,000. The lowest travel budget was is FY 2014, which allocated $617,255 for travel.
The City and County of Honolulu budgeted just over $1 million for travel, while Maui County has about $1.9 million budgeted for travel for FY 2017.
Included in the Kauai County travel budget is per diem, which is how much money officials have to spend per day.
While per diem amounts vary, depending on the length of the trip and other factors, the average overnight, in-state per diem is $90, Shimonoishi said. It’s $22.50 for same-day travel. The average per diem for overnight, out-of-state travel is $145.
When Carvalho and Francisco went to the East Coast, they were given a total of $617.50 and $637.50 to spend for the entire week, Daubert said.
Per diem allowances are usually paid in advance, but if a traveler incurs extra costs, he or she can be reimbursed.
Additionally, officials do not have to reimburse the county for any unspent funds, she said.
If the trip is a line item on the county budget, meaning it has already been approved by the administration and the council, no additional approval is needed. Any additional trips need to be approved by the supervisor, department head and managing director.
While the mayor determines what meetings and events he should attend, the council ultimately approves his travel budget during budget discussions, Daubert said.
FY 2017 will see highest travel budget
In the next fiscal year, the county has just over $779,000 budgeted for their employees to travel. Trips included in the travel budget this year are the National ADA Symposium in Atlanta, the Hawaii Fire Chiefs Association in Maui and the Esri Conference in San Diego.
The increase in the travel budget comes on the heels of the administration proposing to increase the General Excise Tax to pay for $100 million worth of backlogged road repairs. In May, the Kauai County Council voted 4-3 against a bill that would increase the GET by a quarter of a percent.
Councilman Gary Hooser questions if the amount of money allocated to travel this year is too much, considering the push to increase GET.
“The budget of $779,258 does seem excessive to me, especially during these tough budgetary times with so many needs, including road repair issues,” he said.
Hooser said he tries to keep his personal traveling expenses low.
“On occasion I will travel to Oahu for educational opportunities or to meet with the representatives of state agencies and attorneys to discuss Kauai issues,” he said.
If need be, Carvalho has the authority to transfer $8,000 from the travel budget into the Highway Fund, Shimonoishi said.
Because the budget for FY 2017 is already set, Carvalho said he wouldn’t consider transferring money to the Highway Fund this year. But it is not out of the question during future budget discussions, he said.
Yukimura said the administration needs to be careful not to cross a line between what she believes are two separate issues.
“The bottom line is that travel expenditures need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “It is dangerous to generalize that travel is less important than road repair, because that is not the case in many instances. It may be in some, but one needs to look at the specifics.”
Travel is worth the taxpayers’ money because it allows county representatives to lobby for or against certain bills and to testify for additional funds from the Legislature, Yukimura said.
A few years ago, Yukimura, along with other county employees, flew to Oahu to fight a bill that would allow the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to take affordable housing credits owed by developers to the county and use them on Hawaiian Home Lands.
They fought against the bill because it was not good public policy, Yukimura said.
“If we had not shown up, the bill might have passed as written and would have had a disastrous impact on our affordable housing program,” she said.
Written testimony would not have been sufficient enough to stop the bill, Yukimura said.
“Travel that allows us to lobby in person on behalf of the county is very important and justified, in my opinion,” she said.
There are times the county will participate in off-island meetings by phone.
“It is very difficult to participate this way when the committee is large, as many as 30 people physically present in the meeting venue in Honolulu, and often involve visuals,” Yukimura said. “In some respects, Kauai is leading the way in sustainable transportation and could influence the state, but not being physically present puts the county at a disadvantage.”
Hooser said certain duties and responsibilities can only be done in person.
“Face-to-face and in-person meetings are important in establishing long-term relationships,” he said.