Thursday, July 15, 2004

Mayor threatens farm
tax bill veto

The budget director says the revenue
loss could hit $9.6 million

The City Council has passed a bill to change the way relief from soaring property taxes is given to owners of agricultural land.

Mayor Jeremy Harris responded that he will veto the measure, and if the Council overrides the veto next month, he will not implement it.

"The sad thing is that the Council knows as we speak that the bill they passed will have no impact and provide no relief for farmers this year," Harris said. "They simply passed it because there were a room full of angry farmers."

Described by supporters as a one-time stopgap measure until a long-term solution is devised, Bill 35 would allow agricultural landowners to apply for what is called a tax "compromise" through the Department of Budget and Fiscal Services if the 2004-2005 tax bill is higher than the 2003-2004 one.

Then the department would pass those applications on to the Council for approval to keep taxes at the 2003-2004 level.

But the deadline to apply for the tax break is Aug. 2. That deadline could pass if the mayor vetoes the bill and the Council moves to override the veto.

Budget Director Ivan Lui-Kwan told the Council that the bill could result in $9.6 million in lost revenue.

In 2002 the City Council passed an ordinance that was supposed to impose a higher tax rate on agricultural lands not used for farming, such as "gentlemen farmers."

The city now appraises agricultural lands at fair market value and assesses a certain percentage of the value depending on the length of time the land will be dedicated to agriculture.

As a result, farmers and large agricultural landowners who were not able to dedicate their land for agriculture on time saw their tax bills skyrocket.

Several farmers held signs yesterday that read, "Save Our Farmers" and "Support Hawaii Agriculture." Some testified that many of them will go out of business because they cannot afford their tax bills.

Melvin Amantiad, a Haleiwa lotus farmer, said that his taxes had been $1,500 a year but will now be $9,000 a year.

"Because of all this, our family is pretty much going to be forced to sell the property because there's no way we can actually pay this amount," Amantiad said.

Budget Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi said the bill protects farming.

Councilman Gary Okino said, however, that the bill is "simply a giveaway" to large landowners, some of whom are using the farmers' tax plight to get tax breaks for themselves.

Okino and others noted that the bill has also become a hot issue in the mayoral race.

"To pass this hollow measure that everyone knows will have no impact is just political eyewash," Harris said.


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