Sunday, November 4, 2001

Environmental work force created

By Pat Omandam

A temporary environmental army of up to 450 people may be the turning point in preventing the spread of the coqui frog on Oahu and the Big Island, said a University of Hawaii professor.

Botany professor David C. Duffy, leader of the Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit, said the emergency work force -- created by legislators during this recent special session -- provides the manpower needed in Hawaii's ecological war against dengue fever, miconia, the coqui frog and other threats.

"There's some things, like (coqui) frogs on Oahu, the Big Island and Maui, where they're just on the verge of getting away from us," Duffy said. "So we might have lost the war on those (without this help)."

This environmental work force is one of the 15 bills passed by an emergency session of the state Legislature that ended Friday. Gov. Ben Cayetano, who left today for New York, signed most of the bills Friday.

Most measures focused on economic revitalization and increased security, while others were aimed at helping those in need. The House majority calls this latter group "ohana legislation" because they focus on family issues related to the loss of jobs.

Under the emergency work force proposal, for example, Pacific Cooperative, which does projects to protect Hawaii's biodiversity, and the Research Corporation of UH will oversee up to 450 people hired off the state's unemployment list, although lawmakers say 300 is a more realistic number if they are to receive decent wages.

They will work on a three-month contract and be paid a yet-to-be determined hourly wage through a $1.5 million allotment from the state general fund.

Duffy said their jobs will vary depending on the island and environmental problem. For example, people are needed to help deal with coqui frogs and fire ants on the Big Island, while Oahu and Maui need help cleaning areas where mosquito larvae could grow and possibly spread dengue fever.

Other jobs include sweeps of areas to eradicate the fast-growing miconia from the islands' forests, he said. Some training will be provided but most of these workers will be generalists, he said.

"The idea is to give them a variety of things so they don't get bored," Duffy said. "But really, it is to try to take care some of these problems that are sort of threatening to eat us down the road."

Still, Cayetano questions whether people will give up their unemployment compensation to join the work force if the wages are too low.

Indeed, another law passed this session extends unemployment benefits for those laid off because of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Audrey Hidano, deputy director of the state Labor and Industrial Relations Department, said those qualified will get another 13 weeks of unemployment benefits added to the 26 weeks already provided under law.

Hidano said the program could help thousands of unemployed, and officials estimate the move may cost as much as $50 million. The money will come from the unemployment compensation trust fund, she said.

Another measure approved provides temporary health insurance and reimbursements for federal health coverage.

The medical coverage will be for those who lost their health insurance after Sept. 11 and do not qualify for other coverage. The reimbursement pays $125 for single coverage and $315 for family coverage for those who lost their health insurance after Sept. 11 and are now covered under the federal Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA.

And Hawaii's most needy received $2 million in appropriations for food and housing services.

Mark Forman, executive director of the state Office of Community Services, said the $1 million his office received will be spent immediately to provide food for Hawaii's food banks.

Forman said about 24,000 people in Hawaii were unemployed as of Oct. 27, 2001, joining about 100,000 people considered economically disadvantaged before Sept. 11.

Both groups will be given as much help as possible, he said.

"The food banks will serve as many people from the target population as they can for as long as the money holds out," Forman said. "Simply put, the current need is far greater than the current supply."

Forman noted the $1 million will buy about 20 times as much food for food banks than it would normally buy because individuals and organizations are willing to give food banks greater value for their dollar.

Darryl T. Young, housing information officer for the state Housing and Community Development Corp. of Hawaii, said the $1 million earmarked for housing is available immediately.

Young said the money will fund emergency financial assistance and grants to help needy families and individuals pay for rent, leases, mortgage payments, utility bills and rental deposits. The agency is creating grant qualifications and will try to help as many people and families as possible, he said.

"The appropriation was meant to provide temporary assistance to needy applications by stabilizing their housing situation," Young said.

Special session feeds security, construction

Among the bills passed in the special session:

>> The state will use $36 million from various state special funds for increased security at Hawaii's harbors, airports and highways. Some of the money will pay for more deputy sheriffs and contract security officers, as well as for fencing and gates around Honolulu, Hilo, Kahului and Nawiliwili harbors.

>> About $5 million will be for security improvements on state roadways required by the Federal Highways Administration.

>> The state stepped up school construction projects by $100 million, meaning there will be new buildings sooner at August Ahrens and Mililani Mauka II elementary schools, Central Middle School and Leilehua High School. Renovations are set for other schools.

>> About $8 million will be for initial construction of UH-West Oahu, while another measure appropriates $150 million for construction of a new UH medical school in Kakaako. UH must raise the other $150 million to complete the school.

Star-Bulletin staff

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