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Council Nixes Bill That Sought to Create New Building Department

By Nathan Christophel
July 7, 2022, 5:30 PM HST
* Updated July 7, 7:43 PM
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The County Council has shelved plans for a new county Department of Building.

Council members on Wednesday, July 6, during their regular meeting killed Bill 174. The measure sought to amend the county charter to create a new department that would manage the duties and functions currently performed by the Building Division within the county Department of Public Works.

Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, right, speaks as Councilwoman Heather Kimball listens during discussion about Bill 174 on Wednesday, July 6, during the regular meeting of the County Council. (Screenshot from video)

The council voted 5-3, with members Holeka Inaba, Heather Kimball, Tim Richards, Rebecca Villegas and Maile David all in opposition and Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder absent, on the second reading of the bill. The measure, introduced by Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, required two-thirds of the council to approve each of three readings for the proposed charter amendment to be placed on this year’s general election ballot.

Bill 174’s fate boiled down to continued questions as to whether creating a new Building Department would actually solve the multitude of problems and issues within the existing Building Division. There also was some sticker shock about startup and annual operation costs for the proposed new department.

Estimates prepared by the county Finance Department, with input from a team at DPW, revealed a price tag for initial startup of the new department of about $7.4 million for the first year, with annual costs thereafter, including salaries, of more than $2 million.

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“At the end of the day, just trying to get to what government is supposed to be doing and that’s ensuring public health and safety,” Kierkiewicz said Wednesday. “The Building Division helps facilitate that with the permitting process. But what we’ve seen in the testimony, and I’m sure you folks have talked to folks in the community, over time this process has gotten more cumbersome, more inefficient, more expensive, just way more bureaucratic. So trying to peel some of those layers back.”

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She said there have been multiple attempts in the past by other administrations for a reboot.

“But the fact still remains: Public Works is just way too massive,” Kierkiewicz told her fellow council members. “It’s just simply too big.”

She said the status quo is just not working; DPW has myriad problems, including the county’s beleaguered building permit system, Kalanianaʻole Avenue still not being in driving condition and being years behind schedule restoring roads in lower Puna that were destroyed by the 2018 eruption and lava flow from Kīlauea volcano.

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“There are just too many balls in the air that are being juggled by Public Works, and things are dropping,” Kierkiewicz said.

She said the county needs a change and Bill 174 would have provided that.

“What this charter amendment proposes to do is provide very explicit focus on this incredibly important function of county government,” Kierkiewicz said. “It would also allow for proactive engagement within the community around these issues, as well as identify leadership that has actual experience in building and construction.”

The Roth administration was also supportive of the proposed new department.

However, it was a bridge too far for other council members, even while most of them agree something needs to be done to fix the issues within DPW.

“I’m in full agreement with the challenges that DPW currently faces and how that impacts a lot of the programs and things that we want to see happen, whether it be repair/maintenance of our roads, development of Complete Streets, building of housing, permitting and whatnot, and I realize there’s a sense of urgency to get it on the next ballot,” Kimball said Wednesday. “But I think where I am, after several conversations, is I’d like to put a pin in it right now.”

Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas speaks Wednesday during discussion about Bill 174. (Screenshot from video)

She said it’s a rare case where more administration — more bureaucracy — actually solves problems, and looking at some of the challenges DPW faces, it is more related to having the right people in the right positions.

“We still have a lot of vacancies there and here we are proposing creating additional positions and additional vacancies and having to find people to fill those,” Kimball said. “And given the price tag, I’d kind of like to wait and see, maybe do an audit to see if really breaking out this department would actually result in the changes I think we all want to see.”

She’s not ready to make the commitment for an entirely new department, but thinks it is something the council could consider in the future with additional information.

Villegas agreed, saying she was also having some “heartburn” over the proposal.

“I’m not particularly confident that moving it at this time will solve the issues,” she said. “I do agree that DPW is too big. There’s so much going on in there that, in the long run, I think that there’s great benefit to our streamlining of our government to transition that, but I just don’t know that now is the right time.”

She also would have liked to hear from DPW and the Building Division specifically about the proposal.

“I appreciate having somebody from Finance and then saying that the mayor is behind this, but as we all know there are these humans that make these departments work and sometimes make them slower because of capacity or training or lack of staffing,” Villegas said. “We already have a department that could use some more able bodies to help them process things.”

Despite moving a department, adding more positions and more funding, it would essentially still be the same department with the same people and the same processes, she said, but with a $7.4 million price tag.

“I just have some hesitancy there,” Villegas said. “But I really appreciate the sentiment and the direction, and I think this conversation is definitely the right way to be heading.”

Ironically, she added, it’s also an odd time to have vacancies in the leadership at DPW.

“It’s a challenging time, so I’ll just be holding off today in supporting this,” Villegas said.

Inaba asked county Corporation Counsel Elizabeth Strance during the meeting if there were other options to create a new department besides doing it with a charter amendment. Strance said the charter provides two ways to set up county agencies: by charter amendment or ordinance. So it might be possible to revisit the issue later, taking the ordinance route.

“The more we talk about it and with these costs, it is concerning,” Inaba said.

He said all of the powers, duties and functions of the DPW are already prescribed by ordinance. Inaba wondered if it would provide more flexibility by establishing a new Building Department in code rather than locking it into the charter. He asked Kierkiewicz if she had given any thought to going that route instead.

“It’s kind of a surprise to me to hear this from Corporation Counsel because this was reviewed by them and the very, very deliberative discussions we had were around the creation of the Department of Building could only happen with a charter amendment and the functions of the department could be spelled out in code. But it was never an option that we could set up the department via code,” she replied.

Councilman Holeka Inaba speaks as Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy listens during discussion about Bill 174 on Wednesday during the council’s regular meeting. (Screenshot from video)

Inaba said creating a new department is a big move, but while he thinks the council supports the idea, he still has reservations.

“It’s a move that I think we support because we want to be more efficient, we want to get things done faster,” he said. “It’s just a big price tag and it’s very rigid. So I’m not sure. If by charter then, we’re saying we can set up departments either way, I’m thinking it might be better for us to do it in code, being that that’s an option now.”

Richards, who has repeatedly stated he’s leery of any charter amendment, agreed.

“I do support doing something, but I’m not sure this is it right now,” he said about Bill 174.

Kimball said if a new department would produce additional building and construction on the island which would bring in additional tax monies and help offset the new department’s cost, then an argument could be made that Bill 174 would be worth the time and estimated price tag.

“But I’m not convinced that by breaking out this into a new department would actually solve the challenges we have,” she said. “And I think we need a little more time to figure out what are the levers, and I think there’s probably more than one that need to be pulled to improve the service delivery of the Building Division. That’s where my hesitancy comes.”

Perhaps there are code changes outside creating a new department that can address the issues and concerns raised, but in a way that is potentially more effective, Kimball added. She also still has so many unanswered questions.

“I would also weigh in that we had the Charter Commission just in 2020 and this was not something they brought, and they had serious deliberations about the organization and structure of county,” she said. “So I think there’s a sense of urgency to get on the 2022 ballot, but I think if this ended up on the 2024 ballot after we’ve taken some time to figure out if this would actually solve the problem, that’s a better solution for me right now.”

Council Chairwoman Maile David sees it taking a few years to get a new Building Department established. With the issues DPW is already experiencing, the process of creating the department would take longer than trying to figure out how to solve those problems. So instead of putting more than $7 million into a new department, especially without a lot of detailed information to help voters make an informed decision, it might be best to hold off.

“I really think we need to put on the breaks and not knee-jerk react to something that sounds very good,” David said Wednesday.

She’d also like to see if the county’s new building permit system is successful or not before the council looks into creating a new department that will cost taxpayers additional money.

“So at this point, I thank Ms. Kierkiewicz for bringing this forward because if you didn’t, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, and I think this is the kind of discussion that really is helpful not only to us but I think to our communities in trying to make some really good decisions,” David said. “Just speaking for myself, I think (the) time is not right right now.”

In other business Wednesday, the council:

  • Approved Resolution 443, which transfers $15,000 from the Council District 4 contingency relief account to the Department of Liquor Control public programs account to provide a grant to the Pāhoa Lava Zone Museum for expenses related to placemaking initiatives for Pāhoa.
  • Approved Resolution 444, authorizing the mayor to enter into a five-year agreement with an estimated monthly cost of $194 to be used for a multifunction copy machine for the Hawai‘i Fire Department administration office in Hilo.
  • Approved the first reading of Bill 181, which would reclassify nearly 22 acres of agricultural land to family agricultural land in the Kaloko Mauka subdivision in Kona. The property is located along the south side of Kaloko Drive at the northeastern corner of the intersection with Hao Street.
  • Postponed action on Bill 182, which would increase the general exemption amount for property owned and occupied as a principal home and add new age ranges with the corresponding exemption amounts for owners who are 60 and older.
  • Approved the first reading of Bill 183, which would change the zoning from single-family residential to village commercial for 11,254 square feet of land located on a property at 16-540 Laukahi Place in Kea‘au, about 150 feet east of the intersection with Old Volcano Road, to allow for the establishment of a furniture and appliance retail outlet.
  • Approved the first reading of Bill 184, which would increase revenues in the real property tax account ($65,000) and appropriate the same to the grants to nonprofit organizations account to be used for additional grants-in-aid awards to nonprofits.
  • Approved the first reading of Bill 185, with an amendment from the Finance Department to clear up account numbers. The measure would decrease appropriations of $3.44 million in the homeless grant-in-aid account ($260,000) and the grant to nonprofit organizations account ($3.18 million) and appropriate the same in varying amounts to 133 nonprofit grant-in-aid programs.
  • Approved the third and final reading of Bill 168, which would increase the membership of the county Board of Ethics from five to seven members.
  • Approved the second of three required readings of Bill 173, which would add investigations of reports of fraud, waste and abuse within county operations as a function of Office of the County Auditor.
  • Approved the second of three readings of Bill 175, which would amend the county charter to create a new Youth Commission in the executive branch consisting of up to 15 members between the ages of 14 and 24 years old to offer ideas and perspectives for county government.
  • Deferred to the call of the chair Bill 179, which would amend the county charter so that within 60 days of the beginning of every council term all department heads appointed by the mayor and approved by the council appear before the council for a vote to retain each department head.
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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