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Vilifying Accountability

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By Lowell L. Kalapa

While Neighbor Island residents may not be as concerned about Honolulu’s transit strike, the advertisements airing over the television and radio waves underscore the importance of accountability in state and county finances.
Of particular interest are those advertisements being aired by the teamsters which point out the millions of dollars that have been spent on various projects in the City and County of Honolulu. The language of the advertisement treats these projects as questionable expenditures. The implication is that because city money was spent on these “questionable” projects, the city no longer has any money to cover pay raises for bus drivers.
The curious thing is that while these projects were being funded, there were few, if any, objections to these expenditures let alone from the transit workers. And that is the important point. Are taxpayers, or in this case workers, involved in their city and state finances so that they make their voices heard when elected officials spend or raise tax dollars? Participating in the process is just as important as criticizing the expense.
Holding elected officials accountable for the expenditure of public dollars is crucial to insure that tax dollars are not being misspent or spent for projects that do not have public support. Financing government through taxes and fees or user charges is considered reasonable only when the people who have to pay those taxes, fees, or user charges agree that the spending is acceptable and are being spent on projects or services that are desired by the public. If those projects are unacceptable to the taxpaying public, then taxpayers will resist paying for those projects by protesting tax rate increases or increases in the amount of the fees or user charges.
On the other hand, if taxpayers believe a certain project or service is vital to the health and safety of the community at large, taxpayers probably would be more willing to accept an increase in taxes or fees provided whatever taxes currently being collected are being used appropriately as viewed by the taxpaying public. However, in Hawaii, with example after example of costly over-runs and inefficiencies in the way public funds have been spent, the mood of the taxpaying public has not been supportive of tax increases.
That is not to say that there have been no tax increases in the state or at the county level in the past decade. At the state level tax increases have occurred with those taxes that have a narrow constituency like the transient accommodations tax which lawmakers like to believe is being foisted on visitors when it is really coming out of the pockets of every other visitor industry vendor who could have made one more sale had it not been for that mandatory tax on the hotel room.
The conveyance tax was raised to fund programs of the department of land and natural resources because lawmakers felt that only those people who sold or bought property would be affected and then maybe only once or twice in their lifetimes. And gasoline taxes have been increased based on the rationale that it is those folks who use the highways who will have to pay the increase in the gas tax, besides it can be buried in the high cost of a gallon of gas.
Of course elected officials have shunned raising taxes which apply to all taxpayers like the income or general excise tax – not that they haven’t considered doing so, but more so because they fear the wrath of the voting taxpayer. At the county level, elected officials have managed to raise property taxes or allowed tax bills to rise because there are two variables in the formula that determines how much an owner has to pay. First there is the value of the property which the county assessor has to determine each year. The increase in value will vary depending on elements like sales in the same area, size of the property, and other variables. Then there is the setting of the rates by county elected officials. Because changes in valuation will vary, the increase in the property tax rate will have different effects for each parcel of property. So while one property owner may have seen a large increase in value another may have no change in value. Thus, a change in the rate will have different marginal impacts for the respective owners.
So as transit workers strike in Honolulu, the City Council struggles with a new bus fare plan trying to figure out who to hit with the rate increase. At the same time, bus riders are in vocal opposition to sharp increases in fares.
Given that situation, perhaps it seems riders would do with less rather than pay more. That’s accountability!

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