Archive for the ‘Government’ category

Two-minute rail testimony

August 29, 2017

For many students, August means back to school to continue their education. For the Honolulu Rail Transit Project, August means back to the legislature to ask for more money.

Hawaii legislatures have responded to Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s call for more rail funding with revisions to SB No. 4. Public testimony for SB4 was held on yesterday on August 28, 2017 at the State Capitol Auditorium. The 3 pm start time suggests that Ways and Means Committee doesn’t really want to hear from the public; if allowed, I think that public testimony could go on for days.

I didn’t go to the hearing, but I wanted to share my two-minute testimony about the six parts to the funding proposal:

First, $1.32 billion would be raised by increasing the Hawaii Transient Accommodations Tax (TAT) by 1%. In theory, it sounds good to tax someone who doesn’t live or vote in Hawaii. In reality, I think we have reached a point where the TAT is excessive and may deter tourism – unless, of course, we really do want to limit tourism.

Second, $1.04 billion would raised by extending the 0.5%* rail surcharge on the Oahu General Excise Tax (GET) for three years until 2030. While I don’t usually support tax increases or extensions, the GET surcharge is the fairest way to raise funds because it taxes consumption (the goods and services you buy). It lets everyone feel the impact of the tax, keeping the tax front-of-mind.

Third, rail surcharge funds would be deposited into a mass transit special fund. I don’t think we should create another special fund, which could involve more paperwork and more staff to oversee the fund. If lawmakers don’t trust the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART), they shouldn’t fund it at all.  

Fourth, the State Department of Taxation would reduce is administrative fee from 10% to 1% of the gross proceeds. This increases the surcharge revenue allocated to rail transit. This is long over-due. The 10% administrative fee is exorbitant; it appears to be a bribe to ensure the State’s support for rail.

Fifth, the rail surcharge can no longer be used to fund operating, maintenance, administration, or marketing costs, which was not prohibited before. SB4 could have gone a step further and required a financing plan for operations and maintenance by 2018 or 2019.

Sixth, the HART would be subject to an annual review by the state auditor; and a certification statement would be issued by the state comptroller before disbursing funds. Hawaii’s largest public works project should be audited periodically. I think we would all like to know how the GET surcharge has been spent, and who is responsible for rising costs and missed projections.

Did you submit testimony to the public hearing on August 28? Do you think legislators came up with a good funding plan? Who is responsible if rail transit is under-funded?

 

* Corrected: the surcharge is 0.5%, not 0.05%. Mahalo to a diligent reader who caught my typo!

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Reimagining the Neighborhood Board

August 15, 2017

Every 10 years, the Honolulu Neighborhood Commission reviews the Neighborhood Plan and asks for input from the community. What works? What can be improved? I have to be honest: unless you enjoy reviewing bills and contracts, the Neighborhood Plan is not easy reading; but the discussion about Neighborhood Boards is worthwhile.

A year ago, when the Charter Commission considered eliminating Neighborhood Boards, I thought it was a terrible idea. I strongly support monthly neighborhood board meetings because they give people the chance to find out what is going on in the community and voice their opinions.

The first idea I had to improve Neighborhood Boards was term limits. We need term limits at all levels of government to encourage community involvement in local issues, and we service could be limited to four consecutive two-year terms.

Then I decided to challenge the very concept of Neighborhood Boards. If there were no Neighborhood Boards, how would I want to participate in the community? How could I reach out to government leaders and lawmakers? What is the most effective way I could make my voice heard?

I realized that what I strongly support is the monthly neighborhood meetings, rather than the Neighborhood Board itself. The Neighborhood Board is a formal and structured system – with precise district boundaries, elections, and oaths of office – but it’s really more of a Neighborhood Advisory. In some ways they are another level of bureaucracy that separates residents from government leaders and lawmakers.

We could change the name to “Neighborhood Advisory” to more accurately reflect their role as advocates for the community, and remove some of the formality of the Board – with fewer district members and more “at-large” advisers.

Or we could change the focus from a “Board” to a “Forum” completely. We could keep the monthly “Town Hall” meetings with City Councilmembers, State Senators, State Representatives, and representatives from the Mayor’s Office, Police Department, and Fire Department, but instead of Board members, elect “Community Coordinators” who would organize and run meetings.

The Community Coordinators (one primary coordinator and two assistant coordinators) would be liaisons between the neighborhood and government leaders. They would be social media mavens and meeting moderators who would get the word out about monthly Town Hall forums, confirm agendas, take attendance, conduct meetings, and track neighborhood-generated issues. The emphasis would be on facilitating communication, not leadership.

With Community Coordinators, there would be no Neighborhood Board Commission and no Board members. We would need an Executive Community Coordinator as a resource for the Community Coordinators. Formal letters of support or opposition to community issues could be written by Community Coordinators and signed by residents at the next Forum, or offered as templates online for individuals, homeowners associations, and organizations to submit directly to government leaders.

Or we would continue with our current Neighborhood Board system, fine-tuning it and changing it to account for changing technology. We would offer Google Hangouts or Skype video conferencing. We could allow comments by phone or chat, to be read aloud by Board members. We could elect a Social Media board member who would post updates and community feedback in real-time.

What do you think about your Neighborhood Board? Do you attend meetings regularly, or do you feel empowered knowing that you have an opportunity to share your thoughts?

The next 50 years of Blaisdell Center

August 8, 2017

When I was young, I went to Food and New Products shows with my mom at the Blaisdell Center. I went to my first music concert with my best friend at the Blaisdell Center. When my son was younger, we took him to fitness and education expos at the Blaisdell Center, and learned about opera from the Hawai‘i Opera Theatre. More recently, we watched an acrobatic performance at the Blaisdell Center.

Now, the 22-acre Neal Blaisdell Center, built in 1964, is due for repairs and renovations. I missed the July 13, 2017 workshop, where the City presented a summary of the 2016 Feasibility Study and Conceptual Land Use Plan. This Blaisdell Center Master Plan is based on work by a consultant team, community leaders, key stakeholders, and site users.

I like the idea of increased parking and extending Victoria Street to Kapiolani Blvd, which would improve traffic flow. I like the idea of additional meeting rooms and offices above the Exhibition Hall, and the wetland garden and Kewalo Spring water feature. I admire the proposed redesign of the Arena plaza at Ward Avenue and Kapiolani Blvd, to create a prominent entrance and welcome pedestrians with a ticket office and retail space.

On-site housing could help address logistics concerns. The Preferred Land Use Plan specifically states that no housing would be developed on-site, but I think we should consider a number of studio apartments, which could be used by visiting promoters, performers, and support personnel – especially for events where logistics staff need to be available at all times. The studio apartments could be built above the parking structure.

To preserve Blaisdell Center’s history and performances and encourage visitors on non-event days, perhaps we could incorporate a small Performance Museum or Heritage Center near the Arena ticket office, or a “Walk of Fame” near the Exhibition Hall.

Of course, the three key questions to answer are: Do we need it? Can we afford it? And can we maintain it?

Do we need it? While the Concert Hall and Arena are in “acceptable condition and size,” the Exhibition Hall needs “substantial renovation.” Overall, improvements could be made for safety, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) issues, infrastructure and storage space, and parking. The Center could benefit from additional parking, a business center, meeting rooms and offices, retail space, and a rehearsal venue.

Can we afford it? The City and County of Honolulu estimates that the renovations will cost $400-$500 million, mainly funded through City bonds. I’m concerned about the increase in major building projects the City is juggling, from rail transit and the Waikiki Natatorium to Ala Moana Beach Park and Thomas Square. I don’t know whether the budget is realistic, how long it would take to repay the bonds, or whether there would need to be an increase in taxes or Blaisdell Center fees.

Can we maintain it? If the City follows the Preferred Land Use Plan, it seems that the additional parking, concessions, retail space, meeting rooms, and offices could help fund maintenance and repairs.

The City’s design team is incorporating public feedback from that July 13, 2017 meeting. If you missed it, there will another public meeting in the fall of 2017.

What are your first experiences with Blaisdell Center? What do you think about the proposed renovations?

Suspending Hawaii’s Grants in Aid (GIA)

July 25, 2017

Every year, the City and County of Honolulu awards a minimum of $2.25 million to grantees through the Grants in Aid fund, which was created in 2012 by Section 9-205 of the Revised Charter of Honolulu. It is funded by a minimum of one-half of one percent of the estimated general fund revenues, and allocates no less than $250,000 for each of the nine City Council districts.

In 2017, the State Legislature awarded $7.45 million to 26 grantees through the Grants in Aid fund. Under Hawaii Revised Statutes, Chapter 42F, the Hawaii State Legislature can award grants for capital improvement projects and operating funds to support programs.

I supported the Grants in Aid (GIA) programs because I wanted my tax money to go to worthwhile causes. I believe that local nonprofits can address needs that government can’t meet. In general, I trust local nonprofits to be more effective than government at helping those who need help, because they are closer to community problems.

But I think it’s time to discuss suspending the GIA programs.

By suspending the GIA programs, we could redirect $10 million, plus GIA administration staff and expenses, towards existing government programs.

We desperately need money to fund basic city and state services. In addition to essential services, repairs, and improvements, Honolulu continues to face a crisis in rail transit funding, raising motor vehicle registration fees, fuel taxes, parking rates, and possibly property taxes. The State of Hawaii has ballooning expenses of its own, and has been considering raising the transient accommodations tax (TAT) on visitors.

Government funds could still subsidize nonprofits that are filling a gap in services, supplementing existing government programs. But government may not be able to fund nonprofits that are not closely aligned to current government responsibilities and commitments.

More than ever, nonprofit organizations need to be financially stable without government support. And communities need to make hard decisions about which nonprofits to support.

Should we continue to support the Grants in Aid funds? Should the grant money be used instead for existing government programs? What would be the impact on the community if we suspended the Grants in Aid funds?

A student design challenge for Honolulu rail

June 27, 2017

A few weeks ago, the University of Hawai‘i announced the winners of the “Make the Ala Wai Awesome” Student Design Challenge. The challenge generated ideas for improving the Ala Wai Canal in Honolulu, and engaged students in coming up with real-world solutions. Components of the project included flood mitigation, ecosystem restoration and preservation, community engagement, cultural connections, public private partnerships, and improvement of the visitor experience.

I love the idea of student design challenges. It is a bold and practical way to get students involved in the community, show them that they can make a difference, and to help them share their ideas for the future. It could also turn them into more involved citizens and voters.

I think we need a student design challenge for Honolulu Rail. With rail transit costs increasing, lawmakers unable to keep funding upwardly-revised budget estimates, voters burdened with high taxes and a high cost of living, the only ones who haven’t voiced an opinion are the students who will one day ride and pay for rail.

A “Make or Remake Honolulu Rail” Student Design Challenge would give students a choice: to build rail or stop rail contraction.

If students choose to build rail, they would need to come up with a plan to pay for it, including operations, maintenance, and repairs. Would students suggest raising taxes, adding tolls, or finding sponsors?

If students choose to stop rail construction, they would need to come up with a plan to re-purpose the existing columns and guide ways, use the land that has been purchased or condemned for rail, and Would students suggest building skyway bike paths, breezeway parks, or tiny homes?

Here’s what my 10-year old son had to say: “I think that we should finish rail. I believe this because rail is over 50% completed. If we would stop it and destroy it, the government would spend just as much money and time to stop it. If we complete it, we might be able to regain the amount of money we spent to construct it. We could also reduce the amount of fossil fuels used and greenhouse gasses.

How does he think we could pay for it? “We would pay for it by raising funds from other rail supporter organizations. Maybe the government and HART can make a deal with the citizens. I think that [we could do this] by raising the visitor taxes by 5%. 1% would go to an agreement of what the citizens want to be fixed. The 4% goes to the government and 3% of the 4% would go to help encourage organizations to be willing to help and support rail.  The extra 1% would be going toward to finishing rail.”

If the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART), Hawaii lawmakers, and the City and County of Honolulu are struggling to keep rail going, do you think that students might help find more answers? After all, today’s students and their children will be paying for rail in the future.

 

Photo from Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Photo Gallery http://www.honolulutransit.org/connect/photos-videos. Clipart from http://all-free-download.com.

Comments on the draft O‘ahu General Plan

May 23, 2017

The Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP) for the City and County of Honolulu is currently revising the 2002 General Plan that has been guiding O‘ahu’s long-range objectives and policies. The General Plan addresses the critical issues of growth, development, and quality of life that island residents are most concerned about, including regional population, economic health, affordable housing, and sustainability.

The O‘ahu General Plan covers 11 subject areas: Population, the Economy, Natural Environment and Resource Stewardship, Housing and Communities, Transportation and Utilities, Energy, Physical Development and Urban Design, Public Safety and Community Resilience, Health and Education, Culture and Recreation, and Government Operations and Fiscal Management. The objectives and policies are all based on the principle of sustainability in three key areas: environmental protection, economic health, and social equity.

The first public review draft was published in November 2012, after background research and community input. The second public review draft was released in February 2017.

I couldn’t make it to the public meeting on March 7, 2017 at McKinley High School. I didn’t have time to review the Oahu General Plan by the deadline to submit written testimony on May 8, 2017. I wish we had a just a little more time to submit comments, but I missed the deadline, so I thought I would share my comments here.

A removed Economy policy that we should keep:
Economy, Objective B, Deleted Policy 4: “Prohibit further growth in the permitted number of hotel and resort condominium units in Waikiki.” I believe this should remain a part of the General Plan. Waikiki is already at over-capacity, with overpowering hotels and condominiums, diminishing beaches, a lack of parking, and regular closures for parades and events. I think that further growth and expanded renovations are unsustainable.

A Housing policy that should be re-written:
Housing and Communities, Objective A, Policy 1: “Support programs, policies, and strategies which will provide decent homes for local residents at the least possible cost.” I object to “the least possible cost” stipulation because quality materials and craftsmanship are not cheap.

A Housing policy that needs a prerequisite:
Housing and Communities, Objective A, Policy 12: “Promote higher-density, mixed use development, including transit oriented-development.” RELATED – Physical Development and Urban Design, Objective A, Policy 4: “Facilitate and encourage compact, higher-density development in urban areas designated for such uses.” I think that we need to add a stipulation that infrastructure, utilities, schools, and open spaces can support higher-density developments. By open spaces, we need to think both horizontally (parks and landscaping) and vertically (open sky).

An Education policy that needs a broader definition of employment:
Health and Education, Objective B, Policy 1: “Support education programs that encourage the development of employable skills.” I think that public education has three broad goals: to get a job, to start a business, and to serve the community. To encourage entrepreneurship and innovation, this policy should be expanded to include self-employable skills and public service.

A Culture objective that is divisive:
Culture and Recreation, Objective A: “To foster the multiethnic culture of Hawai‘i and respect the host culture of the Native Hawaiian people.” and Policy 1: “Encourage the recognition of the Native Hawaiian host culture…” I think that the term “host culture” is divisive. If Native Hawaiians are hosts, then every immigrant and late-comer is a “guest,” invited or not, who may overstay their welcome.

A new Government Operations policy that we should consider:
Government Operations and Fiscal Management, Objective B, (new) Policy 4: “Provide for remedies/penalties for mismanagement and gross negligence of government programs.” While there is a nod to accountability in Objective B, Policy 3, the policy lacks power. Government officials need to be held liable for their actions  and inactions, beyond shuffling department heads or buying out contracts.

Ironically, Government Operations and Fiscal Management has the fewest number of policies (just eight, even with two new policies added).

What is your opinion of the revised O‘ahu General Plan draft? Which policies and objectives should be changed, added, or removed?

Should doctors write job prescriptions?

April 25, 2017

Last month, news of Hawaii’s homeless challenge gained national attention on HBO’s Vice News (Hawaii News Now, 3/30/17). The 5-minute segment spotlights that “Hawaii legislators are debating whether to classify homelessness as an illness and housing as a treatment. (via HBO).” This Vice News report is not the kind of attention that Hawaii wants, but maybe it’s the attention that Hawaii needs.

Correspondent Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani interviewed four people to get their perspectives on the proposal to redefine homelessness as a medical condition. Gary Grinker, who is chronically homeless and has a heart condition; he visited the emergency room 241 times in 2016, costing taxpayers $1.2 million in healthcare. Senator Josh Green, who introduced a bill to redefine chronic homelessness as a disease and allow doctors to write prescriptions for housing. Representative Bob McDermott, who believes that Hawaii has “turned the safety net into a hammock.” And Dr. Daniel Cheng, an emergency room doctor at Queen’s Medical Center, which handles two-thirds of all homeless encounters in Hawaii.

I had three successive reactions to the news report.

First, doctors’ first responsibility is to take care of patients’ physical and mental health. A “prescription” for housing would probably involve time filling out forms and coordinating with social workers – time that doctors need to help patients.

Second, having a home may not make people more responsible for their health or reduce emergency room visits. It may even exacerbate health conditions, if people have health emergencies in their home and are unable or unwilling to seek help.

Third, if a solution to rising healthcare costs and chronic disease were housing, we would have more people living in shelters and healthier people at home. But in Hawaii, an alarming 82% of adults have at least one chronic disease or condition and 53% have two or more chronic diseases (heart disease, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, asthma, disability, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, or obesity), according to the Department of Health’s “Chronic Disease Disparities Report 2011: Social Determinants.”

Instead of a “prescription” for housing, maybe doctors should write a “prescription” for a job.  Research shows that employment increases health status and healthy people are more likely to work, according to a Lead Center Policy Brief, “The Impact of Employment on the Health Status and Health Care Costs of Working-age People with Disabilities” (2015).

“Work is at the very core of contemporary life for most people, providing financial security, personal identity, and an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to community life,” according to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) factsheet, “Facts about mental illness and work” (1999).

A job gives people dignity as well as a paycheck. Doctors can assess a person’s physical and mental ability to work, and offer a referral to an employer – who could assess their skills, experience, and trustworthiness.

Do you think that we can reduce healthcare costs by prescribing housing? Could having a job help people be healthier?