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Editorial: Mayoral transition: Tough times, high hopes for City Hall

On Saturday, when Mayor-elect Rick Blangiardi and five new City Council members are sworn in to begin their first terms, the Honolulu Hale ceremony will take place before a much smaller in-person audience than the usual inauguration.

Previously, incoming Council members could collectively invite upwards of 100 guests. Due to COVID-19 concerns, that’s now cut to two guests per Councilmember-elect. The precaution serves as yet another reminder of the challenging year ahead — on the heels of the last nine months of pandemic-induced public health protocols and economic strife.

With the city facing a $450 million operations budget shortfall, outgoing Mayor Kirk Caldwell this week offered up a rough-sketch for a balanced budget. The proposed actions include requiring nearly all city departments and agencies to slash expenses by 10%, and deferring annual contributions to post-employment health benefits for retiring government workers.

While core public-safety services must be maintained, Caldwell has rightly pointed out that for some routine services, technology can be tapped — as evidenced via the recent surfacing of self-service kiosk to renew motor vehicle registrations at grocery stores.

But while it might be possible, as Caldwell suggests, to balance the budget while avoiding the pain of employee layoffs, furloughs or increasing property taxes or fees, the Blangiardi administration and the Council must beware the risks of kicking the can of big-ticket obligations down the road.

Among the uncertain price tags looming largest are those for future rail operations — and completion of the 20-mile transit line. When Caldwell first ran for mayor, in 2012, construction was projected to cost about $5 billion, less than half the current estimate.

One bright spot: With help from Hawaii’s U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, Honolulu last week secured a last-minute deadline extension for framing a viable financial plan for rail, which, when signed off on by the Federal Transit Administration, would then free up $250 million in federal money for the financially strapped project.

Even as unusually heavy challenges await city leaders, Blangiardi is assembling a refreshingly diverse mix of Cabinet members, representing a wide array of public- and private-sector backgrounds.

Among the nominees announced this week is veteran Oahu Transit Services General Manager Roger Morton, who will lead the Department of Transportation Services. It’s encouraging that the longtime leader of the company that runs TheBus will be at the forefront of connecting Oahu’s bus system with rail.

In his new post, Morton must hit the ground running as the city is anticipating receiving about $50 million from the federal government in additional coronavirus relief funds for pandemic-related transportation services.

Although few in the Cabinet lineup served in a previous administration, all should be tasked — alongside Blangiardi and the Council — with advancing progress on complex and chronic community problems on which Caldwell and his team have made in-roads. These include reining in illegal vacation rentals and construction of monster homes, and effectively decreasing Oahu’s homeless population.

In addition to specifying the Jan. 2 start time for mayor and Council members terms, the City Charter also states that their first Council meeting is to be conducted in tandem with the inauguration.

For the foreseeable future, Council meeting agendas will include pressing short-term matters — such as how to improve Oahu’s four-tiered plan to curb COVID-19 spread while spurring economic recovery — as well as daunting long-term concerns, including how to plan for climate change threats. Still, on this last day of a difficult year, there’s hope that fresh perspectives and steady leadership in 2021 will bring the city heartening gains.

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