P.O. Box 935
Kaunakakai, HI 96748
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By Keani Rawlins-Fernandez
We are standing at a crossroad. Behind us, a county overrun by tourists, heavily congested roads and beaches, over-taxed resources, and sewage and sunscreen destroying our reefs. Ahead, there are two paths to choose from. One that continues from the path behind us, riddled with unfettered tourism; and the other, the gift of a fresh start, a cleared path calling us home to the Maui County we’ve longed for. The coronavirus lifted a veil revealing what cannot be unseen: hills of parked rental cars, wide-open roads, uncrowded beaches, and nature in its natural condition.
MAUI, HI — Last Friday, Maui became the first county in the U.S. to pass the first legislation that commits to a feminist economic recovery plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The plan calls for putting women at the center of planning and ensuring that the distribution of funds and economic recovery planning values women and the work that they do, which would call for a restructuring of our systems,” said Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, council vice-chair.
In her remarks, Rawlins-Fernandez said the budget paints a picture of how she hopes the council moves the county into the next fiscal year. “We were able to work collaboratively with each other and the administration, in very uncertain times and amidst unforeseen economic and social obstacles, to produce a budget that will sustain the county and allow for much-needed economic development opportunities in the fiscal year,” she said.
She said the committee worked to minimize discretionary expenditures, reduce expansion positions and travel-related expenses, and defer nonshovel-ready projects. They prioritized spending on social services, environmental protection, climate change, housing and economic diversification and self-sufficiency.
Op Ed: Keani Rawlins-Fernandez
Community-based organizations fill essential gaps in services to our residents and deliver millions of dollars worth of assistance to our County. After the global pandemic arrived at our shores, our partnership with these organizations became more vital, as the County alone could not keep up with the surge in immediate and critical community demands. Local businesses, farmers, and nonprofits worked in concert to provide necessary assistance to meet the public’s most basic needs, such as food, medical supplies, and shelter.
But it might not be running so smoothly if the council hadn’t acted quickly. Early on, Rawlins-Fernandes took the lead in working out the kinks for the switch to online meetings. Work began March 10, she said, with a target date to move to virtual meetings sometime around March 22. Gov. David Ige had yet to order residents to stay home or suspended Hawaii’s open meeting laws when the council started planning to use BlueJeans. Rawlins-Fernandez, chair of the Economic Development and Budget Committee, already knew the council would be on a tight deadline. It gets proposed budgets in late March and has until June 10 to deliberate and approve them.
“The council put their faith in me that we would have a process that would continue to be fair and allow the council and the public to participate,” Rawlins-Fernandez said. For those two weeks, Rawlins-Fernandez said she and her staff ran through different scenarios of how meetings could go wrong to try and troubleshoot problems before they came up. The Maui County Council is currently the only one to allow live testimony via video, although Honolulu has announced that it will begin allowing testimony via video on Wednesday.
The ongoing budget committee meetings have required a significant initial investment in time and planning but appear to be working well, according to Chairwoman Rawlins-Fernandez. “There has been a definite learning curve and a process to get it going to where it is today,” she said. “So far the Council members have been willing and patient and understanding in getting to this point.” Rawlins-Fernandez chaired the meeting from the Council’s Molokai District Office while staffers tracked sign-ins on a GoogleDoc to ensure testimonies were fielded in the order that people joined the meeting. Only a handful of people offered phone or video testimony on the first two days of meetings. That will likely increase dramatically over the next month as the committee covers grants and other high-interest topics.
“If one good thing comes from all of this, it’s adopting new tools and new systems for encouraging and enabling public participation,” she said.
Council Vice Chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez used the video conferencing system BlueJeans in her committee meeting on Tuesday to allow residents to call in and provide live testimony. “I wanted to ensure that the community still had the opportunity to participate meaningfully. And I don’t mind being the test subject or the Guinea pigs,” Rawlins-Fernandez said after the meeting. She appears to be the first public official to use a video conferencing system for live testimony. Rawlins-Fernandez, a Molokai resident, hopes county councils and the state Legislature will adopt the practice permanently when the pandemic subsides.
Regarding the cutting of the budget, Committee Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez said in an email Tuesday evening that rather than focusing on a “targeted reduction amount,” the council and administration worked together to identify the department’s critical operational needs and capital improvement projects that could not be deferred for a year.
The commitee also focused on technology and trade industries that could help provide jobs, food security and aid for small business.
By Keani Rawlins-Fernandez
“While facing the unique challenges of a global pandemic and unprecedented statewide quarantine,” said Budget Chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez. “The Committee moved successfully through uncharted waters – putting Maui County on the map – succeeding in our mission to maintain public participation and accepting oral testimony.”
The proposed budget provides homeowners and businesses tax relief from the year before, despite the anticipation of receiving zero transient accommodation tax and shortfalls in wastewater and solid waste due to many hotels not operating.
Council Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who chairs the Economic Development and Budget Committee, said that she would work with council Chairwoman Alice Lee to protect public health while allowing people to weigh in on the budget. “We made the tough call two weeks ago that we would begin the legislative branch transitioning to work remotely and conduct all fiscal year 2021 budget deliberations via videoconferencing,” Rawlins-Fernandez said in a news release.
“These are unprecedented times for everyone in our community, but we will adapt in order to fulfill all obligations,” Rawlins-Fernandez said. “We ask that the public please be patient with these new remote procedures and stay informed about how to participate through our online resource updates.”Maui County bill would end short-term rentals on Molokai
“This is something that the Molokai community has been asking for a number of years now,” said Maui County Councilwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who introduced the Molokai bill.
Short-term rental owners could apply for bed-and-breakfast licenses, but would have to live on the properties, Rawlins-Fernandez said. “We have a reputation of fiercely protecting our home. We want to ensure Molokai is still the Molokai we grew up with for our children’s children,” she said.
“In order to progress and maintain our taxpayer-funded attainable housing supply, government subsidized housing will need to be kept separate and insulated from the market-priced investment housing supply,” said Economic Development and Budget Committee Chair Councilmember Keani Rawlins-Fernandez. “Non-resident trends such as speculation buying, vacation rentals, and the lucrative business of ‘flipping homes,’ have inundated our fragile housing market and pushed our residents to the brink, often forcing relocation to the continental US for credible fear of becoming homeless.”
Rawlins-Fernandez was recently the chair of a Temporary Investigative Group (TIG) which included some of her fellow councilmembers and examined real property tax reform. One of the group’s recommendations, to create additional real property tax tiers based on owner occupancy and property value, passed at the end of last year and aims to encourage “homeownership that is occupied by homeowners,” she said. But that’s just the beginning, with “the next step being second dwellings and accessory dwellings filled with long-term occupants,” KRF added.
“By increasing the highest tax tier and the rate for non-owner occupied dwellings, we hope the new tax structure will dissuade speculation buyers from the previous attraction of investing in second, third, and fourth homes here; or at the very least obligate investors to give back to our community via fair tax compensation for the impact that housing-hoarding has for our residents, and our very limited housing supply,” she responded when asked how the real property tax reform bill could address the trends of non-resident homeownership. “If a non-resident would like to use our housing as an investment, they should also invest in our community equitably.”