Tuesday, October 13, 2015         

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Government takes chisel to services

The state and city administrations have cut back to the point that many functions go unperformed

By Dan Nakaso


The last three years of government worker furloughs, layoffs, job freezes and massive retirements triggered by the 2008 global economic collapse have stripped state and county services to the bone even as the economy shows signs of life.

A new governor and new Honolulu mayor continue to deal with the realities of the 2011 economy while facing profound questions about the kind of services island residents should now expect.

Deborah Vicari, 56, grew up in Kalihi and has seen the lines grow longer at the Satellite City Hall off Dillingham Boulevard, where there seem to be fewer clerks.

“When I go to pay my water bill, they used to have a cashier so you didn’t have to wait in that long line,” Vicari said. “Now, even if you have your bill and your money in your hand, you still have to wait because there’s no cashier anymore.“What’s next for the state of Hawaii?  I don’t know,” Vicari said. “They say they don’t want to chase local people out, but they’re chasing us out. I’ve never seen it this bad.”

Cuts to government services mean public swimming pools, mortuaries and tattoo parlors are no longer routinely inspected. Companies importing perishable food have to rush to meet a tighter window to get their shipments inspected before they spoil. And manpower shortages mean that fewer invasive species are being stopped at island airports by agriculture inspectors.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie characterized the level of state services as “right at the bone.”

“While the government is under-resourced now, it forces us to use our creativity and resourcefulness,” Abercrombie said. “I think we’re going to be more effective and more efficient out of necessity.”

The prospects for financial relief that could bring back government workers — and restore government services — are mixed, at best:

>> Visitor numbers are up and so is individual spending by tourists, who provide the lifeblood of Hawaii’s economy. And Honolulu has finally broken ground on its rail project — the largest public works project in island history — that city officials expect will generate 17,000 jobs.

>> But gas prices are also on the rise, which affects airline travel to Hawaii. There is no federal stimulus on the horizon. And U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, the king of congressional pork-barrel spending, has bowed to political pressure to cut off $321 million in so-called federal “earmarks” to his home state.

Both Abercrombie and Mayor Peter Carlisle want to get rid of employee furloughs, which would reopen government offices every Friday.

“There just aren’t enough people power to get all the work done,” said Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, Hawaii’s largest public workers union. “A lot of the experience is leaving government.”

The number of complaints to state Ombudsman Robin Matsunaga rose 7 percent last year and many were the result of applications, permits and other paperwork that had piled up on the desks of state and city workers who were required to take unpaid furlough Fridays.

When his office tracked down the source of delays in services, Matsunaga said, “In many cases, the problem was simply lack of staff. That’s all the people they’ve got to process the backlog. And they’re telling us that they’re working as hard as they can. There’s nothing else we can do when they acknowledge they’re behind.”

Hawaii’s vital statistics office, which handles birth, marriage and death certificates, lost five positions permanently. Five more workers were laid off and two vacant positions remain unfilled — out of 30 total employees.

Yet the office still tries to keep up with the daily demand for 1,500 certified birth, marriage and death certificates while continuing to deal with time-consuming calls that pour in every day from so-called “birthers” demanding President Barack Obama’s birth certificate.

At the same time, the office is trying to develop procedures and forms to register civil unions in the islands.

Keeping up with the rising work load with fewer employees means that marriage certificates that once took 10 working days to produce now are delayed by three months or more.

“We’re really hurting to keep up with the backlog,” said Alvin Onaka, the state’s registrar of vital statistics. “I don’t think we can ever meet the rising expectations of the public for our service, which is very highly customer oriented. Don’t expect the good old days like when you could walk in and we had what you wanted right there."

Other cuts mean that:

>> The ratio of restaurant inspections has grown to 600 restaurants for each of 10 inspectors on Oahu.

Federal guidelines call for a ratio of 150 restaurants to 1 inspector.

>> The Honolulu Police Department is reducing its DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program from 120 schools to 41 schools. The JPO (Junior Police Officer) and PAL (Police Activity League) programs may also be scaled back.

>> Honolulu’s Emergency Services Department shortened its Junior Paramedic program from several weeks to one week and reduced the number of locations for its Junior Lifeguard program.

Arlanda Fields, 46, took her two teenagers to the Department of Motor Vehicles’ Wahiawa office several months ago for their driver’s licenses and was dejected by the long lines.

And then Fields — a nurse at the State Hospital — remembered that there had been a furlough Friday the week before that likely created a backlog.

“I felt for them because I understood what they were going through,” Fields said. “But it was frustrating.”

There used to be seven nurses working in the State Hospital’s performance improvement department where Fields works. Now there are only three nurses to help all of the other departments find ways to improve.

Because she works with other departments, Fields sees employees all around the hospital “filled with a lot of stress.”

“Morale is really bad and people are less patient,” she said. “Throughout the hospital, people are moody because we’re all trying to do the same amount of work while people are quitting.”

Abercrombie has visited state offices and said he heard similar stories.

He’s also pumped up workers with his often fiery messages about the work ethic of state workers — while worrying about how they can continue to maintain services for Hawaii’s citizens and its visitors.

“People are going to have to understand that we’re all going to have to do our share and come together on this,” Abercrombie said. “The future is showing a lot of aloha for one another. Everybody is going to have to sacrifice a bit. The comfort zone that some of us have enjoyed is going to have to be faced up to: It’s not there anymore.”

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