It’s battle that has been waged for years, but now the Honolulu City Council is finally drawing a line when it comes to funding vacant positions that cost taxpayers millions of dollars every year.
Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who chairs the Budget Committee, says city departments will no longer be allowed to set aside money for positions that have yet to be filled. Instead, funds will be moved into a single provisional account controlled by the city’s Managing Director Ember Shinn.
“So it doesn’t become like a slush fund for the departments, and it’ll be even more transparent,” said Kobayashi. “The taxpayer can see what vacant positions have been filled, and where the money is.”
Under the new protocol, every department must justify a new hire before any money is allocated by Shinn’s office. Councilman Ikaika Anderson called it a much needed improvement.
“Every department head must make their case to the managing director as to the necessity of these positions, and as to whether or not the administration will ultimately fund them," said Anderson, who also sits on the Budget Committee.
With only two months until the full council must approve a city budget, committee members are going through Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s proposed $2.08 billion operating budget line-by-line. Part of the exercise is to find enough money to cover priorities for both the Council and the mayor, such as sewer and road repairs, restoring bus routes and ensuring public safety.
Last month, Caldwell was disappointed when the Council shot down his proposal to raise an additional $15 million in revenue by raising the city’s gasoline tax by a nickel per gallon. However, council members like Anderson and Kobayashi believe savings can be found through the elimination of vacant positions and a small measure of belt tightening.
“There are other ways to do it, we don’t always have to raise taxes,” Kobayashi told KITV4. “There’s a lot of bureaucracy and we should see how we can save, and not burden the taxpayer so much.”
Meanwhile, the Council is still awaiting the outcome of an arbitration hearing held last year by the State of Hawaii Organization for Police Officers that could result in retroactive pay raises for 1,800 Honolulu police officers. Officers at HPD have been working without a contract since June 30, 2011, when a four year agreement with the city expired. Just last month, the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association ended its arbitration hearing that could also result in the awarding of back pay.
Anderson says the Council’s new policy on vacant positions comes down to a matter of choice about city workers.
“We either fund these pay raises and we do not fund vacancies,” said Anderson. “Or, we fund vacancies, but we do not fund pay raises. Really, that's what we're looking at here."
Under the new guidelines for vacant positions, the managing director is required to notify the Council every quarter on the number of new hires retained by the city, and how much money has been spent on each position.