Residents suffer when counties lose at Legislature

It is safe to say this past legislative session was not beneficial to the four counties, nor to our local residents and taxpayers.

As part of its legislative package, the Hawaii State Association of Counties (HSAC) representing Kauai County, Hawaii County, Honolulu City and County and Maui County, had pushed for several measures in hopes to improve the quality of life for our residents. Because rail was the dominant topic this past session, the issue affected and overshadowed funding priorities for the counties:

Residents to pay additional $10 million

HSAC’s foremost priority this year was to acquire a larger and more equitable share of the transient accommodations tax (TAT) or hotel tax. The result, however, was a $10 million cut from $113 million to $93 million this coming fiscal year.

That’s an additional $10 million burden the counties must look for elsewhere. It won’t be surprising if real property taxes would increase because of this inaction. But even with real property taxes being the largest revenue source for the counties, the state Legislature this year considered even taking that revenue to fund its programs.

With increasing costs for much needed fire, police and parks services, this funding cut further punishes our residents who are already unfairly paying for visitors’ expenses.

HSAC will continue to support a 55-45 percent split of the hotel tax revenue between the state and counties, which was recommended by the State-County TAT Functions Working Group. We shall fight for a fairer share of the hotel tax during next year’s legislative session.

Need for lawsuits won over lifeguard protections

Another significant setback for the counties was the state Legislature’s decision to remove the limited liability protection for county lifeguards in the performance of their job.

The current grant of immunity in Act 170, which has been in place since 2002, is scheduled to sunset on June 30, 2017. Senate Bill 562 was meant to repeal or extend that sunset date to protect our lifeguards against frivolous lawsuits. But lobbying efforts from tort lawyers who would benefit from an increased number of lawsuits succeeded in convincing state Rep. Scott Nishimoto not to support our lifeguards.

The bill’s language was changed completely by the state House Judiciary Committee, which mandates the state attorney general to protect only 30 of 406 county lifeguards stationed at only four state beaches across the state. This means the majority of county lifeguards assigned to county beaches are now vulnerable to lawsuits.

HSAC will be back next session to attempt to correct this letdown. We need to rally important stakeholders to help us get that protection back for our ocean safety officers: the men and women who put their lives on the line every day rescuing others.

Our request for additional ambulances to help improve emergency response for our rural residents on Hawaii Island and Kauai — which was consistent and in line with the state’s plan — also didn’t make it this session.

While many in the public and media viewed this legislative session as a disappointment, our resolve as county leaders has not diminished in fighting for what is right. We will work with our state lawmakers, community leaders and other stakeholders in planning for next year’s session for the benefit of our residents and visitors.

County lawmakers will soon convene at our HSAC annual conference hosted by the County of Kauai on June 19 and 20. We look forward to the discussions by our members on how to best serve our constituents.

We also want to take this opportunity to thank the public for their support. Mahalo.

For more information, visit hicounties.com

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This column was written by Maui County Councilmember Stacy Crivello, Hawaii County Councilmember Dru Kanuha, Kauai County Council Chair Mel Rapozo and Honolulu City Councilmember Ikaika Anderson.

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