HILO >> Hawaii County police have spent more than $3 million on overtime and fringe benefits so far in connection with the weeks of protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope, and that does not include overtime or other costs racked up by other law enforcement agencies.
Hawaii island Police Chief Paul Ferreira said Tuesday his department spent more than $217,000 on overtime from July 1 to 15, and nearly $2.77 million more from July 16 to 31.
Together with the cost of overtime for county fire and civil defense workers, fringe benefits and other expenses, the tally for the cost of the protests to county government thus far is nearly $3.27 million, according to Hawaii County Finance Director Deanna Sako.
Ferreira declined to say how many Hawaii County officers were assigned to work at the protests at the intersection of Daniel K. Inouye Highway and Mauna Kea Access Road but said overtime costs have plummeted since July 28.
“We’ve scaled back considerably,” Ferreira said in an interview. “I have one-third of what I had up there originally.”
The totals provided by Ferreira do not include costs associated with state sheriffs and law enforcement officers with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources who were sent to the protests, or the cost of Honolulu and Maui police who were also dispatched to Mauna Kea. The totals also do not include the regular-time cost of Hawaii County police on the mountain. That’s because only overtime costs will be reimbursed by the state.
The Honolulu Police Department reported spending more than $162,351 on overtime, airfare and shipment of vehicles to help deal with the Mauna Kea protests, and the Maui News reported that last week that Maui County spent $68,000 to send 27 Maui police officers to help with the demonstrations.
In a letter dated Tuesday, Gov. David Ige assured members of the Hawaii County Council that the state will reimburse the county for its overtime costs as well as other costs associated with the anti-TMT demonstrations such as food, water, equipment and portable toilets for use in the isolated protest area.
The protests over the $1.4 billion TMT project are now in their fifth week, and at times thousands of opponents of the project have gathered around the intersection of Daniel K. Inouye Highway and Mauna Kea Access Road. The access road has been closed since July 15, and on July 17 police arrested 38 people for blocking it.
The protesters say the TMT project is a desecration of a mountain that many Hawaiians consider sacred, and say they will not allow it to be built. Sponsors of the TMT project spent a decade navigating the state and county permitting processes and fending off legal challenges to the project, and TMT supporters say the project now has the legal right to proceed.
Hawaii County police have stepped up their ticketing of vehicles parked or traveling near the Mauna Kea protest site, issuing about 100 citations per day in the area since late last week.
Protest leaders say that new enforcement push seems designed to put a damper on the opposition to the TMT, but police Maj. Sam Jelsma said Monday the protesters or “protectors” on Mauna Kea are not being targeted.
There have been two serious accidents in the area since the protests began more than a month ago, and Jelsma said officers are issuing tickets when they see violations by any motorists — not just by the activists involved in the protests.
“We’ve got all of these officers up there, and we’re kind of waiting for something to happen, so we’re doing what police do, so we’re out there enforcing,” he said. “For the record, we are not targeting protesters. We are targeting violations on DKI (Daniel K. Inouye) Highway.”
“There is increased traffic up here due to the protest movement,” he said. “Obviously, with people camping out on the side of the road, there is a need for increased police presence, which will make things safer.”
Jelsma said both patrol officers and police special response team members are working on traffic enforcement. Police are also setting up drunken-driving roadblocks and setting up posts for seat belt enforcement in the area, he said.
In a discussion Tuesday with the Hawaii County Council, Ferreira said social media reports that police are targeting motorists who fly Hawaiian flags from their vehicles are “totally not true.”
“If that was to happen, somebody would be targeting one of my daughters. She’s running around with a flag,” Ferreira told Council members. “That is not going to happen.”
Andre Perez, a leader in the protest movement against the TMT, said Monday, “It looks like they’re trying to minimize us and marginalize us being here by enforcing traffic regulations and setbacks from the highway and ticketing anything they can ticket, really, so we’re still trying to figure out where that’s coming from and why.”
He added that it’s pretty obvious that it’s an attempt by the county to just control and limit the amount of people here.
Parking also appears to be an issue. There is a surge of people to the protest site each weekend, with thousands of activists arriving at the intersection of the highway and Mauna Kea Access Road on some weekends, and many hundreds of vehicles parked along the highway.
Kaho‘okahi Kanuha, another leader in the protest movement, said state Department of Transportation officials put up signs Monday prohibiting parking, stopping, standing, loading or unloading for 3,000 feet in each direction from the access road intersection.
“I get it that there are rules and laws that have to be followed for vehicles, and I expect those things to be followed, but what we do see here is that it seems they are specifically targeting people here,” Kanuha said.
“They claim it’s for safety,” but if the concern really was for safety, Kanuha said he expects the state would install additional barricades along the highway to separate pedestrians and parked cars from passing traffic. The state DOT installed a number of barricades on both sides of the highway in the first days of the protest in mid-July.
“To threaten people with tickets and fines and towing under the premise of safety is something that I find a little disingenuous,” he said.
Kanuha said he was told vehicles along the highway need to be parked a “reasonable distance” from the paved shoulder, and said he has asked for better guidance on what will be allowed.
Jelsma noted the new signage was installed by the state DOT, and “as far as the distance … we are also seeking clarification from them on that.”
He said there have been concerns raised that there is not enough of a visible police presence in the area around the highway intersection with the access road, “so we are showing that police presence and essentially enforcing the traffic rules as they apply to vehicles on DKI Highway.”