By Lowell L. Kalapa
The financial pinch is not only affecting the state, but the counties as well where benign neglect over the years has put county officials in a bind similar to the one with which their state counterparts are now dealing – too much spending and not enough revenues.
While the reasons for this dilemma differ from county to county, all counties are faced with the same challenge of not having enough resources to fund all the programs on their plate. Ah, but that’s the problem, too many programs to spend on and not enough money. Same problem the state faces.
Unfortunately, county councils usually decide how much they want to spend first, then the painful part comes later when they have to raise the property tax to accommodate that spending. Thus, the disconnect between meeting wants and asking taxpayers to pay for those wants occurs each year.
The various constituents of the “wants” march down to city hall or the county building demanding that their favorite program or service not be cut or if it is cut it will mean the end of the world. So the county acquiesces to each demand not wanting to offend any constituency and at the end of the day they realize, they have one heck of a whopping amount of funds that need to be appropriated.
Herein lies the problem, because county officials want to be a friend of all and an enemy of none, they lack the ability to say no to a project. However, by not having the ability to say no to any one program constituent, they are jeopardizing their relationship with the person who has to foot the bill, the taxpayer. And in many cases those who ask for full funding of programs are the very same taxpayers who decry increases in the real property tax rate. So what can elected officials do?
It seems that elected officials need to equate the cost of appropriating the funds for a program and service and what that funding will mean as far as an increase in the real property tax rate. Of course, there are certainly legitimate functions for which the real property tax is the justifiable means of financing. These programs or services are those which are considered core functions of the county. These services make up the mission statement of the county.
What are core functions? They are public safety, police and fire protection, health and sanitation. In local lingo, it is “make sure no one breaks in my house, make sure my house no burn down, my toilet flushes and pick up my garbage.” Everything beyond that is pure frosting on the cake. These are the functions that should be funded out of the real property tax and not be an afterthought after the property tax is used for something else.
This is the case in the City & County of Honolulu where the administration is suggesting cutting back on garbage pick up and charging a monthly fee if a family wants more than once-a-week garbage collection. All these years the people of Honolulu have enjoyed twice a week garbage collection paid from property tax collections. Now the administration wants to charge $8 a month for those who want the second weekly pick up. The irony is that the same administration has berated the council for proposing to cut the city’s office of economic development’s popular “brunch on the beach” programs. The administration argues that it is important for the city to promote Honolulu as a place to do business so that jobs can be created. The problem with that is that the state is already doing that, promoting Hawaii as a place to do business. Is this a duplication of services or is this a duplication of services? And are real property taxpayers being asked to pay for this promotion program out of property taxes that used to pay for twice-a-week garbage pick up?
If the city administration of Honolulu wanted to make Honolulu a more attractive place to do business, they could do it without spending a dime. In fact, they just might have to spend less as one of the major criticisms is that it takes so long to get approvals for projects that it even prompted one state legislator to try and pass a bill to override all of the city approval requirements so a new medical center could be built in central Oahu.
So what’s the point? County officials need to go back and examine what are the core functions that have been mandated of the county. They should fund those programs out of their real property tax, and if there is any money left over, perhaps consideration can be given to some of the frosting programs. Local officials need to learn how to say no to spending that is not a core function of county government if they don’t want to raise real property taxes.