HONOLULU (KHON2) — Hundreds of millions of your tax dollars are sitting in special funds intended for everything from affordable housing to clean water, parks and roads. Always Investigating and wanted to know why the money isn’t being spent faster on the things it’s supposed to fix.
High-balance special funds are a red flag to taxpayer advocates and a ripe target for lawmakers needing to balance budgets. KHON2 took a look at what’s going on with some of Honolulu county’s biggest funds.
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Recently Always Investigating covered efforts to spend tens of millions that has built up in recent years in county affordable housing funds. The Blangiardi administration said they’re pushing to get projects off the ground.
Affordable housing money is just the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of millions sit unspent in special funds for the City and County of Honolulu.
“When you add together all of them, it’s $411 million. That’s a lot of money,” said Tom Yamachika of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii. “The balances on all of those special funds increased by $33 million this past year. Why? Why are we squirreling away more money and not using it? We’re supposed to be using it for the benefit of the people.”
KHON2 asked those in charge of the purse strings what they want to see happen at the different departments that are in charge of administering each special fund.
“We’d like to see the monies spent for the purposes set forth,” said Andy Kawano, director of the city Budget and Fiscal Services department. “But it’s going to take time because on top of that we have day-to-day priorities that we’re working to execute on behalf of the mayor and his administration.”
Bond-funded capital projects, debt service, and big projects like roads carry high ongoing balances but do turn over quite a bit with every big project.
KHON2 wanted to know more about the other accounts that have built up tens of millions over time despite a noble purpose they’re supposed to be spent on, things like the Clean Water and Natural Lands Fund. It had about $40 million at the last fiscal-year closing, and a dearth of projects qualified for spending.
“I think the applications have been limited over the years, but I do know that they have two, maybe three in progress right now,” Kawano said. “I believe the commission is looking at reasonably and prudently broadening the scope of use of funds. It’s always going to be centered around conservation of lands.”
Kawano said they’re looking at ways to legislate changes but it may have to be through charter amendments.
Another big special fund is the nearly $8 million “Highway Beautification and Disposal of Abandoned Vehicles Revolving Fund,” about half of which targets abandoned cars.
“A large part of that budget is our towing contract,” explained Kim Hashiro, who heads the Department of Customer Services. “So that is intended to remove abandoned and derelict vehicles off the road. And we conduct an auction periodically, so any nonauctioned vehicles are towed and stored.”
They’re having to do that thousands more times every year than just a few years ago:
Towed abandoned vehicles
FY 2021 – 5,055
FY 2020 – 4,393
FY 2019 – 4,741
FY 2018 – 3,188
Meanwhile, far fewer residents are using the free junk vehicle program which can get an unneeded car out of your driveway.
Free Junk Vehicle Program
FY 2021 – 792
FY 2020 – 889
FY 2019 – 1,599
FY 2018 – 1,090
“We’re trying to get the public to not just abandoned their vehicles on the side of the street, but to actually let us know so that it can be properly taken care of and addressed,” Hashiro said.
Whether it’s roads and cars, land and streams, or affordable housing, taxpayer advocates say either spend special funds more quickly on the targeted purpose, or:
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“Get rid of the special funds and have the departments come back to the city council every year and justify what they’ve done,” Yamachika said.