LIHU‘E — Mayor Derek Kawakami, reflecting on over a year of the pandemic, highlighted the county’s efforts to embrace adversity, Monday, in his third State of the County address.
“When I stood before you, virtually, just a year ago, we had absolutely no idea how this virus would affect our government, our visitor industry, and our small businesses,” Kawakami said. This marked his second address transmitted virtually.
A year in, Kaua‘i has one of the lowest per capita case rates and highest vaccine distribution rates in the nation, and has set the stage for a reopening to tourism early next month.
”COVID-19 altered our lives in many ways, but our county continued to serve our people and maintain our core responsibilities by making quick adjustments and adapting to our ever-changing environment,” Kawakami said. “We have asked a lot of our community over the course of the year, and while our challenges and sacrifices are not yet behind us, our island’s resilient spirit shines through as we embrace adversity and push forward.”
Bluntly, Kawakami announced a proposed $243 million operating budget and a Capital Improvement Budget of $24.3 million for the Fiscal Year 2022.
”Let me cut to the chase. Our fiscal position remains fragile. This year’s budget has no bells or whistles. There are no shiny new facilities or sparkling initiatives,” he said.
The proposed budget plans no layoffs, furloughs or additional tax rate increases.
However, the administration will not be requesting any new positions and has cut 13 to dollar funding. Another 32 jobs, Kawakami said, have been short-funded for six months.
“One constant in our financial outlook is the fact that salaries and benefits account for more than 80% of our General Fund budget, leaving less than 20% to fulfill our core functions and services,” Kawakami said.
A recent survey identified over $80 million in deferred maintenance costs, which has become “increasingly” concerning to the administration. Maintenance will be a priority in the upcoming fiscal year, like repaving roads and reconstructing bridges, upgrading wastewater infrastructure, siting a new landfill at Ma‘alo, expanding the Kekaha Landfill, and increasing affordable housing efforts.
Housing, other issues
Kawakami proposed allocating $2.6 million to affordable housing and homeless efforts, according to Kawakami’s budget transmittal to the Kaua‘i County Council.
In the last year, the county completed a transitional housing project at Ke Alaula on Pua Loke, which is fully occupied, and moved in occupants at Waimea Huakai. In total, the county has established nearly 200 affordable units, with more to come.
The county has provided financial assistance for a 32-unit Habitat for Humanity development in Waimea, and in November, the county broke ground on Lima Ola, a 75-acre Westside community to house 550 families, Kawakami said.
A $22 million Emergency Rental Assitance program is forthcoming through the Housing Agency, using federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money.
Over the last year, the county has received and expended nearly $20 million in CARES funds into the community, Kawakami said.
Kawakami also highlighted initiatives that modernized the Kaua‘i Bus fleet to include WiFi capabilities, the county’s Abandonded Vehicle Task Force that has towed nearly 670 cars, and environmental policies.
“To the many, many partners that helped us to overcome unthinkable hurdles during this unprecedented time, I cannot adequately express my gratitude,” Kawakami said.
Revenue sources take hit
This upcoming year’s Real Property Tax revenues have remained consistent around $157.2 million, and the county’s General Excise Tax revenue looks stable, Kawakami said. That’s roughly $19.8 million used to fund short and long-term road maintenance. In 2020, the county’s Department of Public Works repaved about 10% of the county’s roadways equaling about 42 lane miles.
An additional $39 million in remaining Act 35 funds will support infrastructure projects related to the 2018 floods.
However, the county’s share of Transient Accommodation Tax, an estimated $14.9 million, will likely be affected by Gov. David Ige’s suspension of payments.
Light in the darkest hour
In a long list of thank you’s, Kawakami addressed hometown heroes, including first responders, community partners and county agencies that pitched in on pandemic-related efforts.
”I am grateful to our frontline workers, our teachers, grocery store employees, our local ranchers, farmers and food service workers,” Kawakami said. “Every one of you, who stepped up in big and small ways for our island.”
A lesson from his grandfather, H.S. Kawakami, became a theme for the address: “Sweet are the uses of adversity.”
This William Shakespeare quote, Kawakami said, “depicts the notion that at times, we will face situations where we feel backed up against a wall. When our hurdles seem too high. But these are the moments we should embrace, so we can learn from them and grow stronger.”
“You are the true heroes of this pandemic. In our island’s darkest hour, you are the light. You are the love and aloha that everyone needs a little more of right now.”