Maui County mayoral candidates blast budget, discuss other hot topics in debate
Some of the top candidates vying for Maui County mayor blasted this year’s budget as “bloated” while hitting other important local topics such as affordable housing, tourism management and homelessness.
Mayor Michael Victorino, Maui County Council Member Kelly King and retired 2nd Circuit Chief Judge Richard Bissen Jr. debated in an event sponsored by Maui Realtors Association, Maui Chamber of Commerce and Maui Hotel Lodging Association on Thursday night at Maui Arts & Cultural Center. The three are called mayoral race frontrunners by those groups.
Other mayoral candidates Cullen Bell, Kim Brown, Alana Kay, Jonah Lion and Mike Molina were invited to a forum at 1 p.m. today, which will be aired across all Akakū channels.
The trio on Thursday night was asked about Maui County’s new budget, which spiked about 40% from recent times. Four years ago, the budget was approximately $700 million; now, it’s more than $1 billion. All the while, residents aren’t seeing an increase in income and inflation is diminishing consumer spending power, according to RAM moderator Lisa Teichner.
Bissen challenged the budget, saying that future generations will end up paying for things that are making certain people happy now.
“We are spending as if we’re in an election year – that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re making a lot of people happy in the short term. But there are going to be a lot of people responsible for paying that in the long term, our kids, our people. Your rates might be going down but the cost you’re paying is not because the price of your house went up, your value went up, so even though the tax rate goes down you’re still paying the same or more.”
Bissen, who is Native Hawaiian, said he supports Hawaiian culture but disagrees with the $43 million Hālau of ʻŌiwi Art slated for Wailuku, saying that existing vacant commercial spaces would’ve been “cheaper, quicker, easier and safer” locations for the project. Plus, it won’t be built in the anticipated timeframe.
King, who supported the budget in council, said the budget is “over bloated” this year, with close to five times as much capital improvement projects.
She said her problem with this budget is that every time council tried to get information about where the money is coming from, members couldn’t obtain itemization of the Transient Accommodation Tax, the American Rescue Plan Act funding and the CARES Act money.
“It was really hard for the council even though some of us wanted to go in there and cut the budget, it was hard for us to cut because we didn’t know where that money was going, it wasn’t itemized, all those different types of funding, all the infrastructure funding coming in from the federal government has specific ways it can be spent; if you don’t spend it that way you can get in trouble. That’s one of the things that people are crying out for, is more transparency and accountability,” she said. “Where is that money coming from and where is it going?”
King added that the council was “blindsided” by the mayor’s “political move” to try and get his projects funded.
Victorino defended the budget, though, saying that the budget was made possible with an increase in TAT that is infusing an extra $60 million to $70 million in additional revenue. Water and sewer, along with other services, were kept level with no increases, he said.
“What we found with the money that is coming in from ARPA . . . . and other sources of revenue that we can expand and start to do much of the infrastructure we’ve needed,” he said, pointing to the $58 million wastewater treatment plant in Central Maui.
Victorino said that he has never crafted a budget that the council did not increase.
“I have never made a budget that the council did not increase, so that’s fact, check it,” he said. “Secondly you have to have a balanced budget. We are not like the federal government, operating in a deficit, so every dollar is accounted for, and we have reports to the council . . . every month . . . we are very transparent.”
Victorino proposed a $1.045 billion budget. A budget of $1.07 billion was approved by council and signed by the mayor.
He later defended the Hālau of ʻŌiwi Art, saying that $11 million is coming from the federal government.
When it comes to affordable housing, the candidates discussed county regulations that need to be reformed so approvals and permits can be streamlined. A recent report said that regulatory barriers hampered housing, especially in Hawai’i.
King said the permitting process takes too long and there needs to be better accountability in the county Planning Department. Ombudsmen should help walk people through procedures so they don’t have to pay consultants.
Victorino said that while improvements are needed in the Planning Department, “well-meaning” regulatory bodies such as the state Land Use Commission, Maui Planning Commission and Maui County Council slow approvals.
“It takes three to four years to get any kind of projects, or even small projects, moved along,” he said. “I believe we can, by reducing or eliminating, a lot of those processes could move housing very quickly.”
Bissen said he would require all directors to meet with a builder at the same time. Delays are caused when builders get “bounced around” from one place to another. He said “we don’t seem to know” where the bottlenecks are happening. Delays drive the prices up, and the goal is to drive prices down for families.
For tourism management, Victorino discussed his accomplishments of limiting commercial activities on beach parks on Sundays and holidays. It will soon cover Saturdays as well, so “we have a nice long weekend for our residents.”
He also lauded Park Maui, a project that sets up paid parking for visitors and free parking for residents at county parks.
“These are many steps that we’ve already started,” Victorino said. “The County of Maui has to be protected; this is our home.”
Bissen said activities should be capped, but tourists can’t be prevented from coming. The problem is when visitors “leak into” residential areas; they should stay in planned tourism areas, such as Ka’anapali, Makena and Wailea.
King said that tourists can’t be kept in one area. She lauded illegal short-term rental reductions, which occurred during her first term. She also highlighted Smart Tourism technology that gauges how much visitor traffic exists in certain areas.
“That’s a good management tool along with charging tourists for parking in our beach parks and it’s working in Makena, not charging local people because this is our home and we want to enjoy these places,” she said.
On the issue of homelessness, King said she has worked to create safe-zone parking lots so people could legally sleep in their cars overnight. Victorino said pallet homes with hygiene stations and clothes washing can help until permanent shelters are built. Bissen said utilizing the vacant rental car lots for working homeless where they can shower, wash laundry, plug in electronics and consult with counselors can provide a short-term solution while long-term housing is built.
For the full debate, visit Realtors Association of Maui Facebook page.