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County budget process is inefficient, lacks meaningful citizen participation

A Better Kaua‘i

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Posted: Friday, May 3, 2013 12:30 am

According to our mayor, the annual budget process for the county began last August when he requested the department heads to begin to assemble the data for the 2013–14 budget presentation. But public focus commenced with the annual March 15 message given by the mayor to the council, which set forth his proposals. He advised he was seeking an operating budget of $158.5 million, which was down $7.9 million from the previous year and a capital budget of $49.2 million. The departments having the largest requirements in the proposed operating budget were Kaua‘i Police Department at $26.3 million, Kaua‘i Fire Department at $23.1 million, Finance at $11.5 million and Public Works at $10.9 million. The largest percentage increases requested were for Civil Defense at 179 percent, Finance at 33 percent and County Attorney at 22 percent.

Since March 15, the County Council has been holding numerous sessions devoted to examining the requested departmental budget components. On or before May 8, the mayor may submit any modifications or changes he may seek in the budget, and by June 7, the council must enact the budget ordinance. Only about a month remains in this year’s budget process. Let’s consider some of the budget elements that may be of interest.

The County Charter requires that the annual budget ordinance shall be balanced with appropriations not exceeding revenues and other resources. We can observe the significance of this requirement when we compare it to our federal government.

A recent issue of The Garden Island Forum offered a guest commentary by Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura titled “Expanding the Kaua‘i Bus for the Good of All.” Noting at the beginning of her article that the county is engaged in the budget process, she goes on to argue that an increase in bus service is urgent. But not one word is expressed in her extensive article about the effect of the bus expansion on the budget. It may be that adding new bus service is desirable, but it is irresponsible of her to advocate a course and avoid informing taxpayers what the cost of it will be. On the same Forum page, a citizen’s letter that JoAnn should read poignantly contends that the county acts like a spendthrift continuing to milk the teat of the taxpayer. A basic tenet of good government is that its expenditures must be justified. The Kaua‘i Bus is no exception.

The mayor’s proposed budget contains several minor increases in fees and taxes and a $11 million increase in county real property taxes. The proposal would substantially adjust all property taxpayer classes except the Homestead class. While it is understandable that the administration is interested in revenues as well as expenditures, it should be noted that it is the council that the County Charter charges with the responsibility for revenues. The second sentence of Section 3.10 of the Charter reads “The council shall provide sufficient revenues to assure a balanced budget.” In prior years the council has been less than assertive in exercising its prerogative typically rubber stamping what the mayor may offer as revenue measures. It will be interesting to observe what course is followed this year.

In any substantial organization having an internal audit function is valuable to examine the conduct of affairs of the organization and identify inefficient, wasteful and even criminal conduct. In 2008 the county established an audit department and named a capable person as its director. In the current proposed budget, the mayor has sought to reduce the staffing of the department. Based on the findings of the audits completed, the county would be well served by the enlargement rather than any shrinkage of its function. Is the mayor worried about discovery of inefficiencies in his administration?

In prior budgets there have been reserves set for contingencies at varying levels. Typically, however, the padding of budget amounts for positions which are authorized but remain unfilled has resulted in the actual expenditures being less than the budgeted amounts. How this element is handled this year warrants attention.

The role for citizen participation in the budget process is misguided. In the council hearings the practice is for the council to interrogate the various department heads seeking to probe as to points of concern or for additional information. It would be beneficial for our citizens if they could not only see the proposed item and amounts for each department but also hear council concerns before testifying. However, the procedure used is to require public testimony before the department head examination. And the barriers for the public are even greater. The Sunshine Law contemplates that public testimony is to be available for each agenda item as it is heard. When multiple departments are reviewed in a day, council rulings require that public testimony only be given at the beginning of the day and for multi-day continuations of hearing for a department public testimony is only allowed at the beginning of the first day. The permissibility of the council practices under the Sunshine law is dubious.

The considering of an annual budget is of vital importance to our county and its people. The process could be improved.

• Walter Lewis is a resident of Princeville and writes a biweekly column for The Garden Island.

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