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Higher gas tax advances

Panel OKs bill to hear more public input, says the City Council’s budget chairman

By B.J. Reyes

LAST UPDATED: 2:27 a.m. HST, Apr 14, 2011

A proposal to increase the city’s gasoline tax by 1 cent per gallon has advanced in the City Council, but appears unlikely to go much further.

Budget Committee Chairman Ernie Martin said he was  advancing the measure to a public hearing only to hear more input from the public.

“I have serious reservations beyond that,” Martin said yesterday. “I can tell you for a fact, if it came up for a vote I would vote this down.”

The fuel tax was among various proposed user fee increases as the Budget Committee met for a second day to evaluate all of the budget proposals presented by the city adminstration. Committee members advanced virtually all of Mayor Peter Carlisle’s proposals, which will be heard publicly when the Council meets for its regular session Wednesday.

Carlisle has proposed a $1.9 billion operating budget for fiscal 2012, up $114 million from the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. The budget is balanced with a combination of spending cuts, assumed labor savings and higher user fees for items such as public golf courses, city employee parking, zoo admission fees and parking rates, among others.

The 1-cent increase in the fuel tax is part of a phased 6 cents per gallon increase over the next three fiscal years.

Budget Director Michael Hansen said the money from the fuel tax would go to the city Highway Fund and could be used for funding of future road repair projects as a way to lessen the amount of debt taken on by the city.

Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi noted that the Highway Fund money in the past has been used for other purposes, including for the previous administration’s alternative analysis for the rail transit project, and said she could not support the increase if that practice was going to continue.

“It just hurts all of the taxpayers,” she said. “We’re using it for other reasons.”

Other committee members expressed similar concerns but supported Martin’s move to put the fuel tax proposal forward for a public hearing.

The Budget Committee also advanced a proposed real property tax rate of $3.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. The rate is an 8-cent increase for resident homeowners, and an equivalent decrease for nonoccupant homeowners.

Council members reversed course on a nonbinding resolution urging the state to return excess money collected from the 0.5 percent general excise tax surcharge not needed for the administration of collecting the tax.

The measure was passed unanimously out of committee last week, but in a special meeting of the full Council yesterday was defeated 6-3. Most members said they agreed with the substance of the resolution, but with the state facing budget troubles of its own, did not feel the timing was right.

“We need to pick our fights, pick our battles,” said Councilman Breene Harimoto. “Knowing what the Legislature is facing at this time, I just don’t see anything good coming of this.”

The resolution was introduced by Councilman Tom Berg, who estimated the repayment could result in an extra $16 million for the city.

“My intention all along was to call out an injustice — to call out what’s not fair play,” Berg said.

Council Chairman Nestor Garcia said he hoped to work with Berg and colleagues, and with the Carlisle administration to send a joint letter to state lawmakers next year to inform them of the city’s desire to have all excess money returned.

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