Capitol View

By Richard Borreca

Wednesday, June 9, 1999

The battle over
city’s budget

ON City Hall's third floor, the race for mayor and by extension the initial composition of Hawaii's post-millennium political alignment are being shaped. The issue at hand is the city's annual shell game with property taxes.

For the uninitiated, it goes like this:

Property taxes can be changed two ways. Either the city says, "We are going to charge you more for your land," or the city says, "Your land is worth more, so give us more money."

If the city says your property is worth less but we are going to charge you more for it, you have just met Honolulu's municipal government.

For property owners, there was a hope that the bad news of declining property values would be balanced by some good news on the tax front. But the tax proposal under discussion today would increase rates, causing property owners to pay about the same for property that has lost value.

This wouldn't happen, charge City Council critics, if the administration of Mayor Jeremy Harris would trim the costs of city government.

Council members Mufi Hannemann, John Henry Felix and Donna Mercado Kim, all ousted from their leadership positions by a group friendlier to Harris, also point to specific tax increases.

The money is needed to keep up city services, budget supporters say.

Then Harris and his buddies on the Council drop the tax issue in favor of questioning the motives of Hannemann, Felix and Kim.

A tax increase charged by Mother Theresa and one levied by Slobodan Milosevic both cost the same. The dispute isn't over whose heart beats purest; it is over how much to charge for city services.

The argument, however, is not being framed that way because the Council members are preparing to run either for mayor, governor, lieutenant governor, state senator or even Congress. By law they can't run for the Council again, so they have to move out.

The most obvious job change is to boot out Harris and move on up to the fourth floor.

That altitude adjustment, however, won't come easy. Harris is a tough campaigner, single-minded in his desire to silence all opposition. He won't be easily defeated.

The Council trio has already taken out newspaper ads to oppose Harris and the Council majority's position.

Consider that to be a preliminary strike to check Harris' defenses just in case Hannemann or someone else wants to run for mayor.

THE rest of the battle is being fought in the Council chamber proper. This is where the leaders of the majority have to prove themselves to a skeptical public.

If the majority carries the day on the budget, it will face serious questions in the future about what this budget actually does. Although it was largely the result of the Harris administration, he was instrumental in reorganizing the Council, according to Hannemann, so the Council leaders and Harris are politically joined on this budget.

If golfers have to pay more, if the parks are neglected because maintenance is deferred, if employee pay raise promises collapse, then Harris and Jon Yoshimura put their future in jeopardy.

If the budget passes cleanly and actually works, then that pair and other Council members escape unharmed.

Balancing the budget and providing city services, of course, is no cause for celebration, but if the current crew in charge of the city can't do that at least, their political future dims.

Richard Borreca reports on Hawaii's politics every Wednesday.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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