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Mitch Roth emphasizes sustainability in his State of Hawaiʻi County address

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If you’ve ever talked to Mitch Roth about why he wanted to be Hawaiʻi County’s mayor or any of his policies, you know his answer is always the same: sustainability.

On Monday, Roth reiterated that during his 2023 State of the County address.

Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth gave his 2023 State of the County address Monday in the atrium of the County Building on Aupuni Street in Hilo. The speech was attended by County department chiefs and dignitaries including Hawai‘i Gov. Josh Green and Kaua‘i County Mayor Derek Kawakami, who are seated at the right. Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now.

“Since Day 1, our priority has been and will continue to be sustainability,” he said with County department chiefs backdropping him at a podium in the atrium of the County Building in Hilo.

“Sustainability to me means the ability for our keiki to raise their keiki here on this island. The goal is not only for them to be able to live here, but to thrive here — having every opportunity necessary to live long, healthy and happy lives.”

Throughout his 45-minute speech — attended by dignitaries including Hawai‘i Gov. Josh Green, Kaua‘i County Mayor Derek Kawakami, Hawai‘i County Council Chairwoman Heather Kimball, several Council members and representatives of Maui County — Roth touched on several issues and topics, including affordable housing, homelessness, infrastructure, public transportation, economic development and public safety.

He spoke about successes — and setbacks — while discussing what the state of the County was, where it is now and where it’s going. Roth broke it down with his theme for his address: reformation, resilience and adaptation.


“These three words will act as guiding principles for how we look at our work and manage the many tasks associated with running, operating and ultimately improving our county to best serve you and your families yesterday, today and into the future,” he told those attending in person and watching live on Facebook and Nā Leo TV.


When Roth and his administration took office just a little more than two years ago, it was clear they needed to look at the cards they were dealt and figure out how to best play them.

“Lingering construction projects, long overdue maintenance, permit backlog, failing systems and other issues being felt daily by the public had gone from someone else’s problem to our problem,” the mayor said.

Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth delivers his State of the County Address for 2023 on Monday at the County Building in Hilo. Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now.

While some of those projects affected only portions of the Big Island, others impacted everyone, including a rapidly deteriorating Hilo wastewater treatment plant. The facility has been neglected and is on the verge of environmental catastrophe for the island and potentially the entire state. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be needed to replace the plant — and protect shorelines.

The County has secured the required funding during the past year and following months of difficult technical engineering work, the first phase of the wastewater facility’s rehab is now out to bid, with a notice to proceed for construction expected by the end of June.


“This will be one of the most extensive and expensive infrastructure projects we will invest in throughout our administration,” Roth said.

Another bad card was the scourge of COVID-19. Testing, vaccination, quarantines, lock downs, personal protective equipment distribution, travel restrictions, public messaging and outreach, event cancellations, gathering restrictions, test kit distribution, etc., etc., etc.

But the mayor and his team were able to finally wrap up COVID operations last year and get keiki and the community back together on ball fields, in gyms and at large-scale events. That includes the Merrie Monarch Festival, the Super Bowl of Hula, which will return next month for its 60th anniversary with no restrictions and at full capacity for the first time since 2019.

He also faced the continuing recovery efforts from the 2018 eruption of Kīlauea volcano and resulting lava flows, which claimed the homes of more than 700 families and covered parts of Puna with up to 80 feet of lava. Between 2018 and 2020, more than 1,000 Big Island residents were left awaiting vital recovery services from Hawai‘i County.

The County started a buy-out program, funds for which were secured during previous Mayor Harry Kim’s administration and followed through by Roth’s. As of Monday, significant progress has been made on phase 1 of the volunteer program, with the County spending $37.5 million of federal grant funds to support 193 households who lost their primary homes.


In addition, the Roth administration is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to complete an environmental assessment for roadway repairs and installation of waterlines in lower Puna in areas impacted by the 2018 eruption. The assessment is now in final review and will have a 30-day period for the public to make comments.

Other projects and issues Roth spoke about Monday:

  • Closure of large capacity cesspools in Pāhala and Nāʻālehu, with the County on track to close the gang cesspools before 2028.
  • The Kalanianā‘ole Avenue reconstruction project, the bane of island residents and visitors alike for nearly five years, that was finally finished Dec. 15, 2022.
  • Conversion to the more timely and efficient EPIC building permitting system, one of the most challenging issues the Roth administration inherited. More than 8,700 permits have been issued as of March 10.
  • Public transportation, which had been plagued for years by unreliable buses and routes that did not meet the island’s needs, now includes free rides on Hele-On buses, more fixed bus routes, vanpool service and bike-share as the County continues to implement its Transit and Multi-Modal Transportation Master Plan.
  • Animal control services, which were failing and bordering on animal cruelty when Roth took over and have been a major concern of the community, will soon have a new County agency devoted to the care and maintenance of impounded animals and ensure resident safety and animals are treated with decency.

“Moving forward, accountability, ownership and rectification of the processes, systems and issues we inherit will continue to be a priority for us as we prepare our present for the long-term future of our county,” Roth said.

Hawai‘i Gov. Josh Green, Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth and Kaua‘i County Mayor Derek Kawakami pose for a picture before Roth’s State of the County Address on Monday at the County Building in Hilo. Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now.


To be a resilient island, Roth discussed reviving affordable housing projects, increasing the capacity to care for and treat the houseless, amplifying emergency response capabilities, upgrading water systems and solving staffing shortages.

“It’s the short-term actions we take today that will build the foundation that allows the county to thrive into the future we envision,” the mayor said.

Affordable housing is one of the most critical components to creating sustainability and making sure “our keiki will be able to raise their keiki here,” Roth said.

When he took office, there were just 1,000 affordable housing units in the pipeline on the Big Island. Now, there are more than 5,700 units — and that number is growing.

The County has broken ground and started construction on six projects and completed three to date, including the 20-unit Pāpaʻaloa Elderly Affordable Housing project in Hāmākua and the 60-unit Kaiāulu O Waikōloa affordable housing project in North Hawai‘i. By the end of this year, the administration plans to break ground on another eight projects that will add 778 affordable housing units to the market soon after.

“Aside from affordable housing, our administration acknowledges the need to care for our houseless population in ways that go beyond shelter,” Roth said.

Ground was recently broken on the Kukuiola Homeless Shelter in Kealakehe, which when complete will provide social services and programs to help transition emergency shelter people to permanent supportive housing or affordable housing programs.

The County also dedicated $7.5 million this year alone to help with detoxification, mental illness, medical outreach and permanent supportive housing.

Roth outlined several public safety wins, including replacing the Hawai‘i Fire Department’s Chopper 2, which has been in service for more than 30 years. The new helicopter cost $5 million and is expected to be in service sometime in the first or second quarter of fiscal year 2023-24.

The County has been able to purchase five new ambulances this year and recently welcomed new Police Chief Ben Moskowitz, who Roth said will carry on the tradition of police officers “being a part of our community and not apart from the community.”

  • Hawai‘i County Council Chairwoman Heather Kimball, Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth and Hawai‘i Gov. Josh Green pose for a photo Monday before Roth’s 2023 State of the County Address. Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now.
  • Hawai‘i Gov. Josh Green speaks before Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth’s State of the County Address on Monday in the atrium at the County Building in Hilo. Photo by Nathan Christophel.
  • Hawai‘i County Mayor delivers remarks at the beginning of his State of the County Address on Monday in the atrium at the County Building in Hilo. Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now.

“The community’s safety is paramount to a thriving, resilient Hawai‘i Island and we will continue to invest in programs and equipment that allow our front-line responders the necessary tools to protect our residents’ health and safety,” the mayor said.

Other keys to resilience and a healthy Hawai‘i Island include:

  • Access to fresh, potable water. Three projects in Pāhoa, Papa‘ikou and Halaʻula have been completed to help maintain, protect and improve the efficiency of water distribution for residents in those areas.
  • Growth of the parks maintenance and repair budget for the County’s 300-plus park facilities. The budget was increased from $425,000 to $2.1 million so long overdue repairs can be made.
  • Streamlining the building permitting process. During the past year, a consultant was brought in to assess the County’s current process and make recommendations for change. The consultant’s report was finished at the end of 2022, and many of the suggested tweaks to the system have already started to be implemented. The administration also worked with state Rep. Gregor Ilagan to introduce House Bill 920, which would allow counties to bypass specific elements of state building code, as needed, to address needs of each individual county instead of having one blanket policy.

The mayor also spoke about regenerative tourism, a U.S. Department of Agriculture summer meal program, traffic enforcement and mitigation and crime reduction efforts.

“Ultimately, these are just a few examples of the many steps that we believe are fundamental building blocks for a resilient Hawai‘i Island for today and well into the future,” Roth said.


Roth and his administration have taken several actions to adapt the County’s services and functions for the future. They are planning and innovating to serve the people of Hawai‘i County not just tomorrow or five years from now, but for generations to come.

“One of the most essential component of adapting our county to foster a sustainable future for our island home is to work diligently to protect our climate and with it, our pristine natural resources,” Roth said.

Last year, the County was awarded a federal grant to support a five-year relationship with two other municipalities, one in Japan and another in California, to replace oil and fossil fuels with hydrogen-based fuel cells to help reach carbon neutrality by 2035, piloting hydrogen transformation for not just Hawai‘i but the nation. The relationship will be vital to building out infrastructure and setting the groundwork for potentially a hydrogen-based economy.

The County also continues efforts to convert its transportation systems to clean energy. By the end of this year, Roth expects to add three additional hydrogen buses to the Hele-On fleet, with an additional 18 electric buses coming by the end of 2024. Increasing the capacity of the County’s public transportation system is underway as well, with more than $25 million in grant funding being secured to replace the entire Hele-On fleet, fund operations and start planning for a new base yard in Kona and transit hubs in Kona and Pāhoa.

Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth listens as Hawai‘i Gov. Josh Green speaks with officials in attendance for Roth’s State of the County Address on Monday at the County Building in Hilo. Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now.

During the past two years, the Roth administration also has invested more than $30 million for park upgrades to make sure people with disabilities have access, completing six projects in the past year to make parks compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. By the end of this year, additional upgrades are planned for a total of 15 completed projects between 2022 and 2023.

Efforts to expand connectivity on the Big Island are happening as well to bring digital equity to underserved areas by establishing high-speed connections to anchor locations. That includes a recent $1.5 million Hawaiian Telecom investment for a fiber ring in East Hawai‘i that will greatly increase network reliability for more than half of the island, including in Puna, Kaʻū and Kona.

“Connecting our island today, tomorrow and into the future requires consistent roadwork and infrastructure maintenance, which our administration continues to commit to,” Roth said.

Projects are planned this year to rehabilitate Waikōloa Road in Waikōloa and portions of Kīlauea and Keawe streets in Hilo. The Hawai‘i County Department of Water Supply also is working to establish sound fiscal policies and is planning to implement an asset management program to ensure reliable and fiscally sound water systems, which will contribute to appropriate water rates for all customers. Plans are in the works to protect watersheds as well.

Other ways the County is adapting are:

  • Diversification of industry and business. That includes applying efforts in and around the film industry. Last year, two major TV and film projects were hosted on the Big Island, “Temptation Island” and “Chief of War.” They generated $32 million in on-island revenues, created 177 jobs on the island and engaged 30 island vendors. Exploration of alternative industries will continue to be a theme.
  • Solutions for the County’s ongoing staffing shortages. There are nearly 300 vacant County positions right now. An aggressive recruitment campaign and rebranding efforts are underway. Radio, TV and print advertisements have increased along with a social media campaign and more community outreach. Roth said the workforce of tomorrow must be built today.
  • Update of the Hawai‘i County General Plan. After nearly 20 years, the Roth administration is producing a draft of a new guiding document for the growth of the island into the future. It should go before the public this year.

“We encourage continued community engagement through that process so that we can truly forge a sustainable future for Hawai‘i Island that is adapted to benefit the needs of all of our residents and not just the select few,” Roth said.

In his closing remarks, the mayor said struggles and victories — or both — are commonplace for the County, it just depends on the day, much like what many residents of the Big Island experience.

“The road ahead to achieve these goals is already underway and we’re incredibly proud of the work we’ve done, the work we’re doing and the work we will do to get us to a place where our keiki are no longer our biggest export,” Roth said. “Together, we are working to build a county of the future and not of the past. Not just because we want to, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

Hawai‘i County Council Chairwoman Heather Kimball gives remarks following Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth’s State of the County Address on Monday at the County Building in Hilo. Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now.

Kimball, the Hawai‘i County Council leader, said in comments following the mayor’s address that there are a lot of great projects coming down the pipeline in concert and partnership between the County’s executive and legislative branches. There’s also a lot of opportunity to be grabbed.

“The future of Hawai‘i County has never looked so bright,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do … but the trajectory is in the right direction.”

Gov. Green spoke before Roth’s address and said people sometimes forget that their day-to-day lives are affected by the actions of the mayor and his administration. They often are the ones who get the calls when help is needed for people who are struggling.

Many times it’s because of the partnerships forged between the county, state and federal governments and other organizations and agencies that the work can get done, whether it’s seeking $50 million for Hilo Medical Center, which the governor said Monday will happen, or $40 million for a boat ramp at Pohoiki. It takes a team and Roth and his administration are crucial members.

“Thank you for fighting the good fight always,” Green said.

To watch the mayor’s entire address, visit his Facebook page or the Nā Leo TV website.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at [email protected]
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