I attended the Mayor’s Focus Luncheon hosted by the Kona Kohala Chamber of Commerce this week. As a member of the Marketing Committee, I volunteered to attend the meeting and write an article for the Chamber newsletter. My editor friend, Fern Gavelek, will be copiously editing this down, but I wanted to put it here in its entirety for those wishing to get a view into what was discussed at the luncheon and what our government is doing in Kona.
Hawai‘i County Mayor Billy Kenoi discussed his successes and priorities for supporting the local economy and moving projects forward efficiently while sharing his commitment to small business at the recent Chamber Focus Lunch. The sold-out event on February 28 at the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort and Spa included representatives from all 17 county departments.
After introducing his administration’s directors, Kenoi told the 176 attendees numerous stories of how his staff has been managed in a cost effective way and they have worked hard to bring in projects in under budget, as was the recent case for a waste water treatment plant.
Kenoi stated, “We know that this is a challenging economic environment that we are in. We did not know how long the economic downturn was going to last, but we know we needed to manage county government in a cost effective way by reducing the size and cost of the government”, Kenoi said “In our first year, we cut 55 vacant positions from county government, in our second year, we cut 70 positions, and last year we cut 97 positions for a savings of over $7 million over the last three years for a total cut vacant positions of 222 and that’s just reducing the size of government.” The Mayor then noted that when he took office, the county of Hawaii took in $225 million dollars in taxes. Last year, the county took in $207 million, and the budget that he will be presenting this week, takes in less than $200 million in property taxes. “Our commitment is not to increase the size of government, so that we do not put an additional burden on businesses. By fostering a vibrant business community we help the entire community by providing employment for our working families, who then can provide a safe, healthy environment for our children”. He stated that he is not “pro-business”, but pro-family.
Kenoi said his administration supports the local economy in basically four areas: hospitality, construction, agriculture and government.
Kenoi said the he is committed not to cut a single dollar for hospitality or tourism, because “our commitment to that industry is critical”. He noted that his administration’s focus is on “airlift”; getting more people here to support the tourism industry on the island. To a loud round of applause from the audience, the Mayor stated, “We want to be the gateway to the Pacific. In the last three years, thanks to Alaska Airlines, we have direct flights from Oakland, San Jose and Portland and direct flights from SFO and other markets into Hilo on Continental”. The Mayor explained that keeping the international designation for the airport is paramount. The HTA, Hawaii Convention and Visitors Bureau, resorts and other agencies are incentivizing bringing tourists in from Japan on direct charter flights, which helps to keep the designation until the County can lure another daily flight from an international market. The federal designation is important to grow Hawaii’s capacity in the future.
For construction, Kenoi discussed the county’s team effort of making the permit process more efficient. “Everyone says it takes too long to get the permits through the application process.” They now have weekly reviews of the permits. It used to take months to get an approval. Now all the departments sit in one room, once a week and review the permits at one time. “It used to take a year, now it takes as little as 30 days”, the Mayor proudly stated.
Kenoi said he wants Hawaii County to be using 100% renewable energy by 2015. “The entire Middle East is causing a precarious position to our access of foreign oil. We need to get sustainable with the energy that we already have here on our island.” Kenoi said he meets every week to discuss this issue with his staff that oversees renewable energy. The Senator’s office is working on helping to make this gosl a reality, as many local Hawaii Island leaders sit on the energy committees in top state government. “We don’t have 10 years, we don’t have 5 years. We sit on the hottest spot for thermal energy in the country. Geo technical surveys say that Puna is the best producing spot in the world for thermal energy”. Kenoi stressed that by getting off of foreign oil, we can save our quality of life for the island. He then went on to give an example of a Phillipine island that powers the whole island with geo thermal and then sells their energy to other islands to help support local education.
In terms of using renewable energy, Kenoi pointed out that the new County government building is running on a power surplus due to the photo-voltaic panels on the building, saving the county thousands of dollars each year in electricity costs. In fact, the County is selling extra energy back to the grid.
During the open Q & A session that followed Kenoi’s speech, someone asked about the new Palamanui Community College.
“Education is the great equalizer”, Kenoi said. “How can we make this project move quickly? We are committed to expediting and fast tracking the permits.” He stressed that students in Kona deserve access to quality higher education, just as the students in Hilo do. The county is using a team approach to “get it done”.
An audience question dealt with the need for a local amphitheater. The County representative for the Parks and Recreation Department said that the Kealekehe Regional Advisory Committee meets the first Tuesday of every month to expand culture and arts and is working to make room for an amphitheater. He encouraged interested members of the community to get involved.
Debbie Baker, President of the Kona – Kohala Chamber of Commerce, wrapped up the meeting by noting that the economy seems to be improving and she complimented the County directors and the Mayor about the collaboration between the business community and government.