County Heads Provide Operations Updates, Share Workforce Concerns, Take Questions

By Fern Gavelek, photos by Suzi Patterson

Business First! Pau Hana

ADVOCACY—The Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce recently welcomed Hawai‘i County leadership to a packed house at the Courtyard Marriott King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel for the annual Mayoral Focus Luncheon. County department heads provided attendees with recaps on what they’ve been up to and took questions from the crowd of over 200.

Mayor Harry Kim had to unexpectedly cancel his luncheon appearance as he was called to Honolulu by House Speaker Scott Saiki to testify on a measure to increase the county’s share of the Transient Accommodation Tax (TAT) by more than $12 million. Mayor Kim spoke briefly to attendees over the phone to express his apologies. Subequently, Senate Bill 648 moved through the House Commitee on Finance and awaits further readings in the House and Senate.

Addressing the audience for Mayor Kim, Hawai‘i County Managing Director Wil Okabe said the mayor’s priorities are police, mass transit and the homeless, saying Hawai‘i County has more homeless per capita than the rest of the state.

luncheon housing table“We understand the components here (West Hawai‘i), but we are one island and need to address these priorities together, looking at both sides of the island, rather than separately,” Okabe said. “The mayor is cognizant of how the improved Daniel K. Inoye Highway has united the island.”

Police Addressing Homelessness

Taking the podium for the police department, Deputy Chief Kenneth Bugado Jr. said hot button issues include an upbeat in calls regarding vagrancy and homelessness. Calls are from the area near Pawai Place and the Old Airport Park ball fields.

“We have put quite an effort into dealing with these problems and have a dedicated group of community policing officers—who are specially designed officers within the department—who work with other police officers to arrest those in the park after hours and on private land,” he detailed. Bugado added the effort is on-going. “We will continue to move people away from where they arenʻt supposed to be until social services are in place for them.

The officer also shared there is a new assistant chief servicing West Hawai‘i and Kʻāu: James OʻConnor.

New Mass Transit Head Examing System

New Mass Transit Administrator Maria “Sole” Aranguiz introduced herself, declaring she is immediately working on three things in her position. First, Aranguiz is instituting an “engaging program” so residents can let mass transit know “what is going right.” She will also be in the County Council Chambers April 12 to answer questions.

luncheon panel onlyIn addition, Aranguiz is exploring areas of service, maintenance and fleet replacement with new technology. Saying the mass transit system currently has six routes in Kona, she is eyeing the addition of a Kona satellite location, examing bus schedules and route efficiency. Aranguiz is accompanying drivers on their routes, looking at peak hours and how long it actually takes to get from point A to point B.

“We are addressing the needs of commuters, including the elderly and disabled, our service performance and reliability, and working with the Office of Aging and Parks and Recreation to form partnerships,” she detailed. “The buses are a component of our transit system; it’s really about accessibility and mobility and the opportunity it can create for our economy.”

Managing Finances

During the Q & A, moderated by KKCC Board Chair-Elect J. Porter DeVries, Deanne Sako, county finance director, was asked what the county is doing to manage finances on the heels of increased property taxes. She said each department was asked to make cuts in operations.

luncheon hicomfcu tableWorkforce Woes

Roxcie Waltjen, parks and recreation director, shared she has been busy trying to keep parks and pools open as they are understaffed and equipment has been breaking down. She detailed how there is a shortage of lifeguards and the pool of availability has been exhausted. “We need two certified lifeguards on duty at a pool at all times and so if one person calls in sick, we have to close the pool.”

Deputy Chef Bugado shared Waltjen’s concerns about workforce, saying it’s difficult to retain and recruit police dispatchers. “We can’t do our jobs without them,” he noted. “It’s a common problem nationwide.”

Okabe said both county civil service and administrative employees will receive pay raises in the upcoming fiscal year as a result of collective bargaining agreements. He said the county has active recruitment going on to fill all needed positions and cited the hiring of new Human Resources Director William Brilhante.

“It’s an issue to keep engineers,” he added. “They can make more money in the private sector.”

Need to Improve Permitting System

Asked what is being done to better process the permitting and inspection process for construction projects, Public Works Acting Director Allan Simeon announced there is a new deputy director for West Hawai‘i—Merrick Nishimoto. “With Merrick’s help we are examining the application process closeup, from beginning to end, to make it better, but it’s not an easy process.”

luncheon questionsSimeon emphasized part of the problem in delayed processing is the many incomplete applications that require staff to address one application multiple times. “The permit process is a team effort—project owner, professional contractor and the county,” he noted. “We invite the professionals to be part of the solution; come in and sit down with us so we can understand each other’s challenges.”

The Public Works director stated the county needs more plan examiners—there are three islandwide—which drew a verbal response from the crowd. “So we are looking at manpower,” he continued.

Regarding the second phase of the Ane Keohokāole Highway, Simeon said the department is looking at using county funds for planning and design so if federal funding becomes available, “we are ready.”

Closing Thoughts

Reflecting on Mayor’s Kim outlook for Hawai‘i County, Okabe commented, “Harry feels it takes all of us to make the Big Island a great place to live.” He quoted the costs of housing on Oʻahu and noted that “more and more people want to move here” as it’s more affordable.

Citing the Hawaiian word Kīnā’ole as the way to move forward under Mayor Kimʻs leadership, Okabe concluded,” It means to do the right thing at the right time at the right place for the right reason...and Harry Kim is the right person to do that.”

luncheon expoDuring the event, attendees had the opportunity to enjoy lunch with representatives of 17 county departments. Before and after the luncheon, attendees browsed narly 20 booths at the Chamberʻs Business Expo—which was also open to the public. Mahalo to Hawaii Community Federal Credit Union for sponsoring the Focus Luncheon.


LUNCHEON PANEL—From left: Hawai‘i County Managing Director Wil Okabe, Deputy Police Chief Kenneth Bugado Jr., Mass Transit Administrator Maria “Sole” Aranguiz, Public Works Acting Director Allan Simeon, Finance Director Deanna Sako, Water Supply Chief Engineer Keith Okamoto and Parks & Recreation Director Roxcie Waltjen.

AUDIENCE QUESTIONS—Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce Board Members Stephanie Donoho and Sharon Sakai expertly sorted questions from the audience.

BUSINESS EXPO—Hannah Rose from Sustainable Island Products smiles while meeting with a Luncheon attendee at the Business Expo before the doors opened for the Luncheon.

SPONSOR TABLE— Sponsors of the Luncheon, the Hawai‘i Community Federal Credit Union table was all smiles as they were served lunch before the program began.

LUNCH WITH COUNTY LEADERS—Attendees pose at the County of Hawai‘i Housing Department table. Luncheon attendees enjoyed the opportunity to sit with Hawai‘i County department heads at their designated tables.