Rain doesn’t dampen Mayor Kawakami’s positive outlook in State of the County address
March 14, 2023, 2:15 PM HST
In his signature ʻohana-friendly style, Kaua’i Mayor Derek Kawakami delivered his State of the County address today from the Kauaʻi Civic Center in Līhuʻe by beginning with a comparison of leading the local government to surfing.
“Some days are calm and serene, some days are rough and unpredictable,” Kawakami said. “Inevitably, we will be knocked down, but all we can do is take a deep breath, stay calm, close our eyes and hope we don’t get too beat up along the way.”
That was tested in the middle of his speech when he and the American Sign Language interpreter began to get wet. “God,” he said as he looked to the sky. “Can you make it rain harder.” Firefighters quickly brought out umbrellas for both people and neither person missed a beat.
After an opening ceremony of ‘u’kulele music, the National Anthem, Hawai’i Pono’i and a prayer, Kawakami told the people watching the address in person and via Facebook live that the County of Kaua’i was in the midst of the “shifting tides of the post-Covid economy.”
He stressed the importance of paying down old debts and avoiding new ones during times of economic uncertainty as Kaua’i emerges from “the global crisis that was Covid-19.”
But he added that the goal of this year’s budget is to continue shaping a strong foundation that future generations can stand on, saying: “While we know we cannot solve all our island’s issues, our operating budget aims to meet the community’s expectations with a focus on infrastructure, infrastructure and infrastructure.”
Stating that the county has entered uncharted waters in revenue collection, the county has granted $5 million in property tax relief with a proposed 10 percent reduction for owner-occupied homes.
The mayor gave credit to the County Council for its focus on maintaining and supporting improvement of the County’s infrastructure; implementing new tax laws that place the lion’s share of Kaua’i’s tax burden on visitors to the island; and reducing its reliance on state funding by increasing the share of contributions from the transient accommodation tax and other visitor-generated revenues to the general fund.
Plans are underway to continue improving culverts and bridges on the island, catch up on maintenance deferred during Covid, and improve public safety.
But the most important issue facing Kaua’i now, Kawakami said, is solid waste management with the county landfill nearing capacity. The county is working on expanding the life of the current landfill as it explores more sustainable alternatives.
With $180 million currently in the general fund, this year’s budget allocates 77 percent of the County’s money to pay county employee wages and benefits, and $13 million has been allocated to pay off state loans. The estimated revenue for the county this year is $321 million, with $23 million of that coming from the transient accommodation tax, and $220 million in new property tax revenue.
2023 County Initiatives
“If we look at the shape of a surfboard, we can easily recognize how the board has changed over time, and both shapers and surfers adapted to changing techniques,” Kawakami said. “Government is typically slow to adapt … We are eager to ride the wave of modernization to increase efficiency in our workplace by providing the tools and equipment to deliver excellent customer service.”
Some of the 2023 initiatives cited by the mayor:
- Kauai Bus System: Improvements including real-time tracking of bus locations.
- Information Management System: Improving integration among county departments.
- Kaua’i War Memorial: Building upgrades and improvements.
- Vidinha Stadium: Improvements to modernize the stadium.
- Police and Fire: Communication and radio upgrades.
- County Parks: New Parks Department maintenance position for Veteran’s Cemetery.
- County Attorney: Addition of one Deputy County Attorney position.
- Real Property Assessment Division: One additional position to improve customer service.
- Department of Motor Vehicles: New Kapa’a service center.
- Houselessness: New county coordinator position, 32 additional acres for low-cost housing.
- Economy: Focus on job creation for local families.
- Climate Change Resilience Plan: First county in the nation to create plan to regulate construction based on sea level rise projections.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health: $1 million has been earmarked to expand services.
- Elderly Affairs: Continue to improve the kūpuna meal program.
Major Ocean Safety Improvements Planned
“But more important than any infrastructure project is the safety of our residents and visitors,” Kawakami said.
He cited the five drownings in the past five months along Kaua’i’s shorelines as unacceptable. In response, budget money has been allocated to create 12 new Ocean Safety officers to increase coverage and expand hours to protect Kaua’i’s beach patrons. Additional jet ski coverage also is planned. This will provide quicker response times to try to save lives.
“If there’s one thing that frustrates the surfer, it’s the crowded lineup,” Kawakami said. “Let’s face it, at times, Kaua’i can feel crowded. Though the county doesn’t control population or visitor arrivals, we can … manage the way visitors act and where they stay.”
Kawakami said he hopes to achieve balance between promoting tourism and strengthening the economy and protecting the ‘āina and the environment from the effects of runaway tourism.
Kawakami closed the address by acknowledging those that volunteer their time to make Kaua’i a better place. He thanked everyone for the “honor of serving our county. Life is a journey, every single one of us is on a journey.”
You can watch the State of the County on Facebook by clicking here.