Mayor Bernard Carvalho, Jr. delivered his ninth State of the County address Thursday morning. It was a good one. We admire the mayor’s passion and commitment to maintaining Kauai’s cultural and traditional identity while seeking to improve its infrastructure, continue to provide essential services and grow its economy.
The mayor delivered an inspired talk, and it’s clear he has the best of the island and its residents at heart. His experience, his knowledge and his charisma will pay dividends for Kauai and it continues to face challenges.
The issues he covered in his nearly 50-minute speech are important. The mayor is proposing the county invest in improving its roads, its beach park parking lots, add bus shelters and seek assistance for the homeless.
Balanced budgets, transforming government, healthy living, sustainability, stewardship, opportunity and housing impact each and every person on Kauai. We like that the mayor emphasized this is a team effort.
“In our canoe, as in community-building, everyone has a job and responsibility and each job, while different, is equally important,” he said.
“Along the journey we will paddle against the winds… and every once in a while, we’ll have to bail water. … But in order to continue forward, we must move together with equal effort.”
One area, though, that is a concern, is the amount of the proposed operating budget: $204 million. That’s a record budget for the county. That’s $15 million more than last year. The budget has climbed steadily since fiscal year 2013-2014, when it was $159.4 million. The following years, the budget has been $179.2 million, $181.9 million, $189.7 million and this latest proposal.
So, since that FY 2013-14 budget, if this proposed $204 million budget is approved, that’s nearly a $50 million increase in county spending.
To support the extra spending and meet critical needs, the mayor is proposing to a 19-cent across-the-board increase in real property taxes, which will result in an increase of $3.6 million in revenues. He is also asking the council look into increasing the General Excise Tax.
He is also calling for a six-month freeze on filling new vacancies, which is good.
“Therefore, we are transforming the way we do business — both inside and out — to help us maximize our limited resources to meet the needs of the people,” the mayor said.
Yet, this proposed budget still is a bit daunting.
While we have no doubts the county is working hard for the people who provide the money for it to operate, a budget of more than $200 million — when just four years ago it was $159 million – seems like there is room to do some trimming, rather than raising taxes.
We hope in the coming months as the council works on its budget, it takes a hard look at spending and possible areas that could be reduced.
However, this won’t be easy, because, as the mayor pointed out, the majority of the operating budget goes to employee salaries and benefits. Such reductions would most likely have to come at the expense of people who are employed by the county.
“Reality is such that the cost of government continues to grow as a result of collective bargaining and the rising cost of doing business continues to be a challenge,” the mayor said.
The mayor, as he should, is looking at both short- and long-term financial sustainability and we applaud him. But raising taxes is not unavoidable.
To avoid raising taxes, though, would require some tough and certain unpopular decisions of regarding services and staff.
Perhaps some recommendations that could save money could be presented to the people for comment. If the county were to cut spending by 1 percent, that would save $2 million. Another issue that must be addressed is how contracts are negotiated between the government and employees.
We like what the mayor said. He is right. Maintaining a beautiful, livable and affordable Kauai is difficult. Yet, spending must be controlled and disciplined.
Operating the county is a balancing act that requires a firm, guiding hand. If anyone handle this task, it is the mayor.