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State ready to offer financial support, but Hawaii County has to ask

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    A look at Moku Street in Leilani Estates on Saturday.

Days after floods soaked Kauai on April 14 and 15, Mayor Bernard Carvalho’s administration put together a portfolio detailing the damage and the urgent help needed by the community, and submitted it to the state Legislature.

On April 18 state lawmakers publicly committed to providing $100 million to the flood recovery effort.

But on Hawaii island, where since May 3 the community has faced dramatic devastation from the Kilauea eruption — damaged roads and water systems, thousands of evacuees, 657 homes destroyed and 6,164 acres covered by lava — there have been no comparable commitments from the state.

Lawmakers repeatedly offered help to Hawaii County officials, including Mayor Harry Kim, but the Kim administration still hasn’t asked the Legislature for a specific package of financial support, House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said.

“As you know, the Legislature has committed $100 million to take care of our residents and the people of Kauai, and it is prudent for the Legislature to step in to assist the people of the Big Island, and we have offered the mayor assistance as well,” said Luke (D, Punchbowl- Pauoa- Nuuanu).

“We are just waiting for the mayor and his office to figure out the level of assistance, but the Legislature is definitely willing to provide financial assistance to the Big Island,” she added.

The Hawaii County Council approved a resolution June 19 urging lawmakers to convene a special session to address emergency funding assistance, but Kim confirmed in an interview Monday that his administration told lawmakers the county can manage with its own resources until August.

Kim said lawmakers from both the House and Senate visited Hawaii island and made it clear they were willing to meet in a special session if necessary. Gov. David Ige’s administration also released $12 million in state funding to assist the county, he said.

“The problem with us now is that we don’t know specifically what kind of costs we want and where,” Kim said. The focus will be on long-term housing for people who have been displaced, and “once we have the plans intact, we fully expect to go to them.”

He said any money provided by the Legislature would be for “emergency response only” and could not be used to cover the county’s normal operational expenses. “It’s a big difference,” Kim said.

The county estimates it will lose $4.9 million in property tax revenue in the fiscal year that begins Sunday because of land and homes destroyed by lava, or properties devalued because access has been cut off by lava. That loss in revenue could eventually grow to $12 million, county officials have said.

It has already contributed to a county budget shortfall for the next fiscal year. But Kim said there is no way the county can ask lawmakers to help with that. Then he added that there may be ways the state could help to fund county operations during the lava emergency, “but I’ve never heard of it.”

Instead, his administration is asking the County Council to approve an excise tax increase of 0.25 percent to help cover the budget shortfall.

The Council rejected an earlier proposal to increase the excise tax in Hawaii County by 0.5 percent, and last week rejected the administration’s proposed quarter-percent increase. The Council is scheduled to reconsider Kim’s proposed quarter-percent excise tax increase in a special meeting Friday.

County finance officials have said that without additional funding, they may have to resort to cost-cutting steps such as reducing county pool or gym hours or eliminating funding for Summer Fun activities to balance the budget.

“We have our responsibilities, right?” Kim said Monday. “And the federal government has been there, the state government has been there. The state government gave us the opportunity for additional tax revenue. It is us who did not capitalize on it, and that’s to be plain and clear.”

The state has also spent millions of dollars on support for the county via the Hawaii National Guard, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the state Department of Health, “so you can’t just look at cash,” Kim said. “Look at all the roadblocks. It’s the National Guard, because if it was the police, we don’t have the manpower.”

“I don’t even want to talk to the governor (about) what is it costing,” Kim said with a laugh. “So when you say, how come we’re not asking, I’m getting more than I would have asked for, to tell you the truth.”

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