Council members push administration for specifics about how it would spend lava recovery funds

Hawaii County Council members pressed county administrators Wednesday for details on how they will spend $60 million in disaster aid following last year’s Kilauea eruption.

That’s the amount state lawmakers are mulling giving the county, most of it in the form of no-interest loans, through House Bill 1180, which has a hearing today in the Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs Committee.

Council members, during a lengthy discussion with Mayor Harry Kim and other county officials, repeatedly noted the county’s credibility is on the line with the Legislature, as well as their constituents, regarding how it uses those recovery funds, in addition to the $22 million already granted by Gov. David Ige.

“I’ve been asking the same questions since I’ve been in office,” said Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, whose district includes eruption-hit areas. “We need answers, we need a timeline, we need to show the community that work has been happening.”

County administrators were unable to provide the details council members sought regarding disaster recovery because they said much of the planning is ongoing. They said that’s what the funding will assist with.

“What we’re talking about is permanent long-term programs that is new to the state, new to the federal government,” Kim said. “They (lawmakers) asked us for specifics. We didn’t have specifics at that time, and we are still working on that because the need changes.”

Diane Ley, county Research and Development director, said some of the funds will be used to hire a temporary staff and consultants to help with planning efforts. Currently, county administrators are trying to lead recovery planning on top of their normal responsibilities.

Ley said a framework for a recovery team will soon be presented to Kim for approval.

“As soon as we have that done, we will come back and share that with the council as well as the county,” she said.

Wednesday’s discussion occurred while the council deliberated on passing resolutions and bills authorizing the acceptance of the funds. All of them were approved.

Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy said she’d like to see a plan for how to spend the funds before the council votes on the bills again during second reading.

Council members also said they’d like to know more about how the county is going to spend the rest of the money appropriated by Ige, which includes $10 million for disaster response and $12 million for disaster recovery.

So far, the county has spent $7.4 million of the money granted by Ige, Finance Director Deanna Sako told the Tribune-Herald.

HB 1180 requires the county administration to report monthly on how it is spending the $60 million in grants and loans, and council members expressed an interest in oversight. Kim said he’d welcome it.

“I’ll agree to any kind of oversight or control,” he said.

“I know we have to get better and more specific, and as soon as possible have specific programs. And we will do that.”

During testimony, several eruption survivors urged the council to make sure recovery funds are spent in lower Puna, where more than 700 homes were destroyed, including, according to the county, more than 200 primary residences.

“I’m asking you, as overseers of this money, to make sure lava disaster folks receive the benefit of that money,” Nancy Seifers, who has a home in the isolated kipuka off Highway 132, told the council members.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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