View Point

By John Henry Felix

Saturday, August 14, 1999

City budget
is a clunker

HONOLULU'S city government needs a major overhaul. We are like an old car that hasn't been properly maintained.

We've painted over a few rust spots, put on new seat covers and added a few accessories. But we won't pass inspection if we continue to use baling wire and bondo to keep us going.

Like the person who spends too much time and money on keeping his jalopy looking good rather than running well, city officials scramble each year to cobble together a budget to pay for government services.

We've taken to raiding special funds, hiking tax rates, selling off city assets, adding and increasing fees, and legislative hocus pocus to balance the budget. Instead, here's what we need to do to get on the road to fiscal health:

Bullet Change our mindset about budgeting. As we enter the new century, the gas-guzzling budgeting of the booming 1970s and '80s must give way to more fuel-efficient and less wasteful models for these leaner times. If this is to happen, we must determine our resources.

The city's largest single source of revenues is property taxes. Perhaps it's time to wean ourselves from dependence on state support.

Each year we are held hostage to the calculations and the opinions of state budgetmakers. We need to find out what our guaranteed base income is and work from there.

It would be foolish to buy a car so expensive that you couldn't afford to put gas in it or pay for its upkeep. Likewise, we must live within our means, rather than look for more money to afford a lifestyle to which "we've become accustomed."

Bullet Establish our responsibilities and needs. The primary charge of city government is to ensure the health and safety of the public. Yet, over the years, it has moved into funding social services, culture and the arts, economic development and tourism-related programs.

We need a road map of where we are going as a city and what role government should play in getting us there. We must look at privatization, public-private partnerships and delineating the duties of city, state and federal jurisdictions.

Bullet Shop around. We all know that Honolulu is a unique place and we don't want what's good about it to change. But we should seriously examine other municipalities with an eye toward learning what works for them and incorporating the best of "there" right "here."

Why not commission a panel of citizens -- including representatives from business, government line workers and administrators, unions, etc. -- to make a thorough examination of how our neighbors on the mainland are doing this?

ACCORDING to state and city figures, Honolulu's population is 892,000 and our operating budget is $1.024 billion. Our city work force is 11.2 workers per thousand citizens.

Meanwhile, San Jose has 909,100 citizens, a budget of $1.1 billion and 7.3 employees per thousand. Portland has 1.7 million folks, a $1.1 billion budget, and a worker/citizen ratio of 3.19 per thousand. Indianapolis and Chicago have led the way in privatization and have substantially reduced the size of their governments.

How did these cities do it? Let's find out.

Bullet Plan ahead. It is irresponsible and short-sighted to lurch from year to year in developing our city budgets. We need to look beyond the short-term and implement a long-range fiscal plan. At minimum, we should bring to the table a five-year plan that anticipates our needs, sets our priorities, outlines our goals and brings common sense to our revenue-setting.

Bullet Work together. The old joke is that a man never stops to ask for directions when he's lost and gets upset when his wife tries to help. But to find our way back to fiscal sanity, we are going to need everyone's cooperation.

John Henry Felix is a Honolulu
city councilman representing District III

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