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Bill Proposing Creation of New County Building Department Moves Ahead

By Nathan Christophel
June 16, 2022, 7:34 AM HST
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While one county department was thrown into disarray earlier this week with the ousting of its director, discussion about a completely new county department — a proposed spinoff from the same department already in turmoil — was on the agenda of the Hawai‘i County Council’s regular meeting Wednesday, June 15.

Ashley Kierkiewicz

Bill 174, introduced by County Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, proposes creating a new county Department of Building by amending the County Charter and moving certain functions done by the county Department of Public Works Building Division. The department would take on responsibilities of that division that do not pertain to county assets.

The council moved the measure forward, approving its first reading by a vote of 6-3, with council members Holeka Inaba, Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder and Rebecca Villegas voting no. The bill needs to be approved two more times to make it on this year’s general election ballot for county voters to make the final decision.

Mayor Mitch Roth campaigned on fixing permitting issues within DPW, which has worked for the past couple of years to improve its permitting system and get a handle on a backlog of building permit applications. On Tuesday, the mayor’s office announced that Ikaika Rodenhurst no longer serves as DPW director, leaving a void in the department’s top leadership post.

The announcement also included changes in the Building Division. Julann Sonomura was named acting chief of the division, with Neal Tanaka now serving as acting deputy building chief.

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DPW Deputy Director Steven Pause will be the department’s primary point of contact, essentially serving as interim director, until a new director is named.

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“Our administration remains committed to helping our community thrive and succeed, and through that, we will continue to work diligently to address the issues surrounding our building permitting process,” Roth said Tuesday in a press release about the moves at DPW. “We understand that our folks rely on a consistent flow of permits to keep food on their tables and roofs over their heads, and we are dedicated to ensuring that they have every opportunity to do just that.”

Kierkiewicz said during Wednesday’s meeting that she did discuss the idea of creating a new Building Department with the mayor several months ago, prior to drafting Bill 174, and Roth was supportive. County Managing Director Lee Lord confirmed that Wednesday.

“In spirit, we definitely support this,” he told council members.

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Lord said the Building Division is large and has within it many other divisions performing tasks. Severing it from DPW into its own department would allow the division to really fine-tune its operations.

The only reservations the mayor’s office has is cost, Lord added, but ultimately the opinion is the Building Division would better serve the county if it was its own department.

Hawaii_County_Logo

During talks about one of two amendments to the bill that were also approved Wednesday, despite their agreement on the bill’s concept and intent, some council members wanted more information and echoed Lord’s cost comments.

Several said they specifically want to know how the move will impact the county’s coffers.

Kierkiewicz said, like with any charter amendment, there needs to be a fiscal impact statement prepared and said it would be forthcoming by the county’s finance director. That should be done by the time the council considers the measure’s second reading. David specifically asked Lord if it would be possible for the administration to have the numbers crunched by then and he answered affirmatively.

“I’m curious to see how much additional cost this creation of this division is going to generate as far as our budget is concerned,” the chairwoman said.

Richards agreed.

“Conceptually, I understand where we’re going with this and I think it is the right movement, and administration does support it, but I do want to see the numbers before I get totally behind it,” he said.

Inaba simply wants to get more information from the administration about how the formation of this new department would proceed. He and some other council members asked Kierkiewicz if she had collaborated or worked with anyone at DPW to draft the measure.

She did not; however, she said the language of the bill is related to the kuleana of the existing Building Division and honors existing language in county code. Inaba said to restructure a department into two really requires coordination with that department. Villegas said it would be wise to work more directly with DPW on the proposal.

“I’d ask that you make that effort to really work with the administration on this,” Inaba told Kierkiewicz.

Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder is concerned about the proposal in general, and Villegas is looking at the risk vs. the reward of making such a move. She thinks the entire council is aware that there are challenges with DPW and its Building Division and streamlining is necessary, but isn’t convinced the amount of work and effort it would take to shift the division into a stand-alone department would outweigh it continuing to exist as is.

“I think we can change where things live, but until we change what’s really going on within it, I just remember a comment about wherever you go, there you are, and with you comes your troubles, your talents, your challenges, your whatnot, and so I feel this just makes me a little uncomfortable at this point,” Villegas said.

The two amendments approved to Bill 174 on Wednesday:

  • Provided an effective date for the proposed County Charter amendment of July 1, 2023, if approved by voters. Kierkiewicz said the would give the county enough time to make plans for the new department, create its budget and hire staff.
  • Removed language to make sure the responsibility of designing and constructing county facilities is retained by the various DPW divisions already in charge of those duties to make sure anything related to county assets stays within the DPW. That would mean a new Building Department would essentially manage plans, specifications and applications for private building and construction; plumbing, electrical and building permits; enforcement of all county building, construction and inspection ordinances; processing sign applications and variances; and “exercise other functions as prescribed by the mayor or prescribed by ordinance,” according to the language of the original bill.
Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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