Honolulu is going to get a new mayor this fall.
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2. Mind the Money
No matter who insists on a back-to-basics goal for the next mayor, their reason that this is so important is always the same—money. The city spends too much with borrowed money, and the result is that the city is in tough financial times. “Borrowing money to pay for road maintenance drives me up a wall,” says Rowland. “But that’s what this city does.” If the city is not borrowing, it’s raising taxes. The City Council gave car owners a Christmas present of higher fees to register their vehicles—not to cover the wear and tear those vehicles cause to the roads, but to fund raises for police officers.
The job for the next mayor, according to those we spoke with, isn’t just to save money, but to better account for spending. “The next mayor has to tell the truth about city finances and be accountable,” insists Slom.
Hannemann says the city’s financial picture is needlessly cloudy. “Some council members say we’re in dire straits while the administration says we’re in good shape. Which is it?” asks Hannemann. “The next mayor can solve this by getting a comprehensive audit to figure out our finances.”
Kalapa is big on fiscal accountability: It’s the mission of his nonprofit group. In his view, the next mayor needs to be strong willed enough to use the real property taxes it has at its disposal to pay the bills. He points out that, in the constitutional convention of 1978, the counties told the state, “If you give us real property taxation power, we’ll never come back to you for more money. Well, Mayor Frank Fasi came back the very next year,” Kalapa recalls. The problem with the real property tax, for politicians, is that property owners are involved, aware citizens who vote. Consequently, mayors will beg, borrow or steal the money through any other mechanism before they will raise that tax to cover the amount they actually spend.
By the mid-’80s, the counties turned to the state for grants, with Honolulu scoring $70 million in 1989, when the state was flush with a surplus.
Then the counties got the Transient Accommodations Tax, paid by every tourist to book a hotel room here. Now Honolulu is seeking its own excise tax. In January, Harris even proposed switching vehicle registration fees—a tax on vehicle owners—from a weight-based tax to a personal property tax, to raise more money. In other words, people who buy expensive cars will be taxed more. “That’s exactly what former California Gov. Gray Davis proposed,” says Kalapa. We all know what happened to Davis.
That’s the begging and stealing. Then there’s the borrowing. “By the city administration’s own projections, debt service will be more than 20 percent of the budget by 2008,” says Kalapa. This is the kind of number that has people screaming for the next mayor to cut back on frills. “At one time, Harris had 19 community Vision Teams spending $2 million each on things like neighborhood markers,” says Kalapa. The city has cut back considerably, but we will be paying for the loans on the markers, with interest, for years to come.
Then there are people who think that accountability means something deeper than sound financial planning. Criminal charges have been filed against 15 people for illegal contributions to Harris’ campaign fund. Some of those people were major city contractors. No direct pay-to-play link to the mayor has been publicly disclosed by investigators, but the possibility taints Honolulu Hale. What, after all, is the point of making illegal donations to a politician if you won’t somehow be rewarded for it later?
Something has to be done about this, says Duke Bainum, the other former city councilman who would like to be mayor himself. “It would appear that the next mayor of Honolulu needs to take care of the projected $100-million budget shortfall, reduce crime, deal with transportation, create jobs and improve the economy,” he says. “But none of these can be tackled effectively until we change the way things are done at city hall. The next mayor needs to sweep out the underlying patterns of corruption present in every illegal campaign contribution and special-interest deal in the city. This is no simple task, and the city has suffered for years from a system that rewards special interests.”
How to go about it? For starters, Bainum recommends that the next mayor immediately freeze all significant city contracts for two or three weeks and have them reviewed by an independent panel to make sure they were awarded without bias.
3. Try new things
Since some city problems seem intractable, the next mayor of Honolulu should consider some innovative thinking. He or she might not even have to think very hard. Just listen. The public will not only tell the mayor what problems to solve, but how to solve them.
Consider the seemingly endless problem of park maintenance. People have been complaining for years that city park restrooms are dumpy and the grounds poorly maintained. Rowland suggests privatizing some of the parks. This would not just be good for the private sector, he says, but could solve a structural problem that keeps government services from excelling. “Running the parks puts the city in the position of both providing the service and evaluating how well that service is provided. When the same people do both of those things, it doesn’t work,” he argues.
The city ought to be in the evaluation business, not the operations business—a natural role for elected officials who are supposed to look out for our interests. “Let’s take the money the city is spending to not maintain the parks very well and offer it to a private entity on the condition that it deliver the results we want: clean restrooms, customer satisfaction reports.” If that entity fails, the city takes the park—and the money—back.
Another longstanding problem for the city is homelessness. As Lynn Maunakea, executive director of the Institute for Human Services (IHS) points out, homelessness, for many of the people in her shelters, is a real estate problem. “We have a housing subsidy we can use to get 23 people into rentals, but the rental market is so tight, we can only find places for 17 of them,” she explains. “We can’t solve homelessness if there is no housing.”
IHS is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It has two shelters, a men’s facility in Iwilei and a women’s and family shelter on Dillingham Boulevard. Maunakea says that landlords would rather not rent to her clients if they can avoid it. She says the City Council had approved $6 million for homeless assistance. “I would love to see the next mayor help with homelessness by applying that money toward a housing project. It would reduce the number of people who are chronically homeless. The more [people] we can get out of the shelters, the more we can create some movement.”