Rob Parsons

The big Maui bailout

Should local emergency dollars be spent to bolster the economy?

by Rob Parsons

December 11, 2008

As we ushered in December, the month noted for holiday cheer, our newspapers reported that the National Bureau of Economic Research announced the U.S. economy has been in recession since this time last year. Apparently they used the same style of critical analysis as that of a driver who hears a "thud" and looks in his rear view mirror to see what he ran over.

Federal bailout requests creeping toward a trillion dollars should have been an early indication to those esteemed economic prognosticators.

One week after the
presidential campaign slogan
of "Yes We Can" brought
new hope to the country,
it seemed the local mood
had quickly plummeted to
"No Can Do."

Locally, there's been little doubt this year that Maui and Hawaii are in the midst of an economic downturn. We've witnessed layoffs and the shutting down of operations at Molokai Ranch, Maui Land & Pineapple, ATA and Aloha Airlines. Tourist numbers have plunged by double digits, and the crackdown on vacation rentals has led to closures of several businesses in Paia and other Upcountry locations. There has been a bit of merciful relief to gasoline and electric prices that soared to historical highs earlier in the year.

Back in September, The Maui Chamber of Commerce called for the Tavares administration to release its economic stimulus report and strategy plan. In early November, former Economic Development Coordinator Lynn Araki-Regan authored a Maui News Viewpoint expressing disappointment at the lack of urgency in preparing such a plan, especially since that office has added five new staff members since the Arakawa administration. Araki-Regan also offered several suggestions of her own to jumpstart our sagging local economy, including putting selected capital improvement projects (CIPs) on a fast-track, re-directing funds for Maui Economic Opportunity (MEO) and the Maui Food Bank and prioritizing passage of a Home Occupation Business Ordinance.

In mid-November, Mayor Tavares finally made an announcement-not of a stimulus plan, but that department heads were being asked to cut budget requests by 16 percent overall, to meet an expected $55 million shortfall in county and state tax revenues. One week after the presidential campaign slogan of "Yes We Can" brought new hope to the country, it seemed the local mood had quickly plummeted to "No Can Do."

Just as swiftly, the County Council offered up an early Christmas bonus to the construction and development industry by putting Makena Resort rezoning on a fast-track, casting aside concerns about the long-term stability of our economy and environment and flying in the face of common sense.

One day after the Land Use Committee passed the Makena request for at least an additional 1,000 housing units for the ultra-wealthy, Chair Mike Molina sent a letter upstairs to Mayor Tavares. In a November 22 Maui News article, Molina proposed utilizing $3 million of an available $12 million in the County Emergency Fund for a three-part economic stimulus plan.

Molina called for $1 million to supplement visitor industry promotion efforts, $2 million "to provide $1,000 subsidy payments to families affected by loss of jobs or economic hardship" and expediting CIPs to put people to work, while improving the county's aging infrastructure.

It's hard to imagine that pouring more county money into the gaping maw of the already plump Maui Visitors Bureau budget will put people on airplanes to Hawaii. Tourism numbers are down because of how Wall Street and other economic factors have impacted people on the Mainland, not for lack of promotion. Trying to affix band-aid measures to the hemorrhaging wound that is our over-dependence on off-island visitor dollars and major construction financing is not likely to pull our economy out of the intensive care unit.

West Coast activist and author Van Jones explicated a myriad of exciting alternatives in his latest book, The Green Collar Economy. Jones's hopeful outlook is that one solution-a strong thrust toward a renewable energy economy-can help save the planet and help solve the socio-economic issues of the people who inhabit it.

Likewise, frequent New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's new tome, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, calls for a "green revolution" to counteract converging trends of dwindling resources, climate change, and international economic recession, based on what he terms the declining security of "petropolitics." The book mostly skips over a description of our current global challenges and how we got here, and is more focused on well-researched and detailed solutions.

Outlining both the challenge and opportunity at hand, Friedman advocates shifting from the "Code Red" of post 9/11 to a "Code Green," mobilizing efforts to create clean power sources and energy-efficiency systems and inspiring an ethic of conservation.

The solutions to Maui's economic slump will not be found in propping up the current structure; its foundation shows signs of crumbling with age. They will come from innovative ideas, and it's clear we will have to guide our elected officials down a different path than the one they've chosen to pave.

I asked several influential community members to offer their input on ways to address our current economic crisis.

"Writing checks to needy families sounds politically expedient," said Maui Planning Commission Chair Jonathon Starr, "but it will do little to help improve economic situations on Maui. Improving infrastructure in a clean, green manner will pay multiple short- and long-term dividends."

Starr also favors energy conversation and efficiency investments for county facilities and additions to the public transportation system. He also floated the idea of hiring a mortgage counselor to help those facing foreclosure threats to find new assistance programs.

Council candidate Kai Nishiki, who ran for the residency seat now occupied by Molina, offered an array of ways to support local food production. "We need a revival of our local food economy," she said. "We can offer grants to farmers who need to build water storage to secure themselves against times of drought. And grants could support building community gardens, certified kitchens and educational facilities that help people with businesses based on locally grown foods."

Nishiki also recalled the Emergency Environmental Workforce that was quickly implemented shortly after the 2001 dengue fever outbreak in Hana, with help from Senator Kalani English. The workforce hired local residents for education, clearing mosquito-breeding areas and lending a hand with invasive miconia eradication in the East Maui rainforests.

Such a marriage of environmental and economic initiatives harkens to the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, a Depression era work- relief program that enhanced national parks, planted millions of trees and built dams, bridges and other needed infrastructure.

General Plan Advisory Committee Vice Chair Dick Mayer believes that money spent to refurbish county parks will help support current funding to visitor industry promotion. "After our visitors arrive, they are often disappointed in the dilapidated state of our parks," he said. "[Fixing them up] could improve their experience of vacationing here."

Mayer also believes jobs to train people in renewable energy fields, such as solar panel installation, are good investments in our future and could be supported through current programs with MEO and MCC.

MCC's director of the Sustainable Living Institute of Maui program, Alex de Roode, echoed the need to support solar photovoltaic (PV) installations to residences and business, through leasing agreements, subsidies or additional tax credits. De Roode favors scholarships for students entering MCC programs in fields such as high tech, engineering, natural sciences, health and medicine and sustainability programs.

He proposed establishing a County Office of Sustainability, similar to one created by the city of Portland, Oregon. He also supports conducting a food security analysis (as the Big Island has done) and implementing the recommendations of that study.

Community organizer Angie Hofmann of SaveMakena.org believes there are better alternatives for out-of-work construction workers than building mansions in the culturally rich lands of South Maui. "Why not create green collar jobs by training union workers to install PV panels, then install them on government buildings to reduce electrical expenditures and waste?" she asked.

Only one citizen who responded voiced opposition to using the emergency fund. Kihei's Buck Joiner, who often takes aim at the county funds ($3.85 million in the 2008 budget) allocated to the MVB, e-mailed: "I am opposed to using the emergency fund for anything other than a true natural disaster or similar devastating event. This economic slump is serious but NOT an emergency."

The Maui County Code defines the purpose of the County Emergency Fund like this: "The emergency fund is established for the purpose of funding a public emergency threatening life, health, property, or economic viability of the County." Appropriations to the fund may be approved while reviewing annual fiscal budgets and expenditures from the fund require an affirmative vote from at least seven members of the council.

Councilmember Michelle Anderson believes the economic downturn is too big and complex to be fixed with $3 million. But she also believes it's important to help those whose needs are most critical.

"To help those in serious need I would suggest that Housing and Human Concerns work with nonprofits that serve our community with food, emergency shelter, assistance with housing payments, etc., and distribute the funds to these organizations according to need," said Anderson.

Former Mayor Alan Arakawa said the county "should absolutely create an economic stimulus initiative." But, he added, "any taxpayer money spent should meet several criteria, including the fact that jobs created must serve the public demand. Areas of shortages, such as nursing training, police officer training and training of medical support personnel, could be supplemented."

Arakawa gave a nod to projects such as the South Maui Police Station and Gymnasium, and the Kaunakakai and Haiku fire stations. "These are projects that need to be designed and constructed, as they will benefit our communities long term," he said.

While we review our own holiday shopping lists, let us collectively ask what positive efforts we may collectively make to ensure a brighter future for all of Maui.