Mayor Peter Carlisle’s priorities: Rail, sewers, then everything else

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—Going into the fall election, then-mayoral candidate Peter Carlisle talked about some of the weighty issues facing Honolulu: a $100 million budget shortfall, furloughs, aging infrastructure (especially the sewer system), the reality of rail, road quality, “homelessness,” protecting greenspace, and, since the election, the announcement of Honolulu as the site of the 2011 APEC meeting. Now Two months into his tenure, Mayor Carlisle says he wants to make sure APEC goes well, but his priorities remain the same: putting Honolulu on a sound, sustainable financial path.

“There are a whole bunch of sacred cows that are on the board for discussion,” Carlisle says. And that includes looking at expenditures in law enforcement and military exemptions—in short, a systems-wide accounting to see what can be cut, including salaries across the board. “‘We can now show capital is growing and debt is growing at the same time, and that ultimately means bankruptcy, as a number of cities on the ‘mainland’ have confronted. We can’t afford to not be forward looking. We need to change the structure of government.”

Looking at a different model of government to even out the spending peaks and valleys is part of the plan, as is fostering an ethos of saving, whether at the government or home level. Carlisle is clear: Honolulu can’t spend like drunken sailors when times are good and keep borrowing in less flush times to continue to provide capital improvements and services. And he says it doesn’t matter if the financial picture for the City and County becomes rosier. Carlisle says he’s expecting good news from tax assessments: “As they are going right now, the projections are better, dramatically less that than half [of the $100 million shortfall].”

The nuts and bolts of rearranging how Honolulu spends taxpayer and other monies comes back into the central question: What is the proper role of local government?

“Are we all things to all people?” Carlisle proposes. “Is it government that has to take upon itself all of these issues. And do we do it alone or do we have the good sense to look at the private sector? Do we look at questions of unsustainability?” His answer is implicit in all of the questions. No, government cannot be all things to all people. Public-private partnerships need to be augmented. And, yes, the litmus test of sustainability must be the guide for every decision to fund everything from medical coverage to the retirement system.

Honolulu will know it’s on the right track if it can establish a reserve, an unassailable contingency fund that would help the City to move from its current AA bond rating status to the coveted AAA.

“The list of priorities was always money, money, and money,” Carlisle says. “If we don’t get our financial house in order, then everything else fails so my priority is exactly the same: changing the spending patterns of City Hall and changing the culture of ‘let’s put it off for the next administration’ or ‘let’s do this for political reasons.’ I like the theory that I’m a loose cannon and I’m not going to be making decisions with an eye to being reelected. And that will put us on a new, radically different financial course.”

What may not be dramatically different is the coterie of staff Carlisle will keep. The greatest surprise, he says, is how genuinely easy the transition has been.

“The new administration didn’t go in with the idea of guillotining a bunch of heads, loping off people and losing institutional knowledge,” Carlisle says. The right people in the right places is more than a human resources axiom. Carlisle says it’s a practical response to free him to review legislative issues, create policy, partnerships, and cooperative efforts with the State and the other mayors. His working list of specifics starts with rail, then sewers, then he says, “everything else.”

Honolulu’s mayor has been critical of the report from Infrastructure Management Group hired by former Governor Linda Lingle to review the rail project. But he agrees the huge difference in projected costs concluded by IMG boils down to the truth that not all variables are known at any one time.

“What it really says is that the future is uncertain,” Carlisle says. “Well, duh, didn’t we know that already? If you take certain assumptions, if you look at the conclusions of IMG, a longer and more expensive project is a possible scenario. But if you look at what’s happening right now with the collections of revenues as well as where we are with getting ready to go—costs right now are extremely low.” Specifically, he mentions labor wanting to get off the bench plus the accumulation of materials and the federal New Starts funding. And while other Federal Transit Administration bus grants may be fungible and used for rail, Carlisle isn’t counting on it.

“I want to stick as close as possible to the 0.5 percent,” Carlisle says. “I think this should be financed by the general excise tax, the special fund. When you start going to other funds and start raiding them, I become much more concerned. Right now we do have federal funding, we do have the backing of the federal government and we have their oversight for this specific project. The second you take that away, you make a major change to the final EIS, then there’s no guarantees they will say they’re interested anymore.”

Carlisle says Honolulu has promises to keep to the federal government. He also says that the revenues raised from 2007 to date show the City and County is 99 percent on schedule. “We haven’t raised $120 million, we’ve raised $580 million and if we get going as soon as next year, we’ll have 2,000 more local people in jobs getting local dollars in their pockets to be spent in our economy.”

Carlisle would also like to keep the costs of dealing with municipal solid waste fueling Hawaii and looks to statewide cooperation to create beneficial exchanges. “So for example if [other islands] wanted to get rid of municipal solid waste in our direction, we could ship back ash in their direction. That would mean less and less going to the landfill—Waimanalo Gulch—and that would be a very desirable outcome and would also mean it would have the ability to last far longer.”

Adding that the upcoming addition of a third boiler at H-power will allow virtually all the tonnage of municipal solid waste to be converted to energy for Honolulu use, other energy providing dollars will also not flow out of the State.

For many who use Honolulu’s roads, potholes have also turned to black holes where money disappears.

City and County residents already know they will pay high sewer fees and Carlisle says that’s unavoidable.

“Shortsighted thinking lead to the dramatic increase in sewer fees because people in past weren’t paying attention, and it wasn’t politically correct to raise sewer fees,“ Carlisle says.

Last summer, the City, State, and the EPA agreed to a federal consent decree, the result of lawsuits brought by several environmental groups after the City dumped raw sewage into the Ala Wai Canal in response to a March 2006 sewer main rupture. While meeting the standards of the decree may be tough, Carlisle says, “If we do it correctly it won’t be with the gun of a new consent decree at our heads. We want to comply as quickly as possible. We’ve already put a billion dollars into the ground. Now we have scheduled dates and locations and that’s what we’re going to be handling.”

For many who use Honolulu’s roads, potholes have also turned to black holes where money disappears.

“We waged a war against them and they won,” says Carlisle. “We have unique problems. Sand and salt makes patching that’s effective on the ‘mainland’ less effective here.” Concrete is not a solution, he says, because infrastructure under roads may need to be accessed. The key is decreasing redundant work—for example, having to pull up a recently fixed road to get at the infrastructure that should have been accessed before repairs were begun. That takes a high level of coordination among City agencies. It’s also his strategy for greenspace: He will push for more closely tied together departments, with shared equipment.

“We have to overcome the turf wars,” Carlisle says. Bad pun, but you get the point.

“No fiefdoms” seems to be the mayor’s motto, and equally applies to the use of agricultural land.

“The idea of measured growth and maintaining a sufficient amount of ag lands on all islands, including Oahu is a concern for everybody,” Carlisle says. “We need to know what we’re capable of doing with the ag land we have. We can’t go back to the days where we thought we could sustain ourselves completely. We’re going to be dependent on ships coming and going but we have to maintain ag land through best use and best practices.”

West Oahu’s ag land is centered in his scopes, Carlisle says, and it will need to be husbanded with cooperative efforts between the City and County and the State and “without political pressure.” Whether such a thing is possible is the subject of conjecture, but Carlisle seems convinced that the Abercrombie administration will be a willing partner on this and other issues.

Carlisle says his concern for measured growth also extends to the expansion of BYU. He is quick to add that it’s tempered by the economic contribution of the school.

“There is a very real and significant question whether they’re going to stick around here,” Carlisle says. “If you know what the cost is per student, it’s subsidized to the tune of 15 percent from the student and the rest subsidized by the Church. That’s an immense amount of external capital being put here and tomorrow they could pick up and go somewhere else. But we also have to look at the issues—the infrastructure, the roads …”

The mayor’s to-do list is appreciably longer, but Carlisle says for now, he’s sticking to his priorities. By the end of next year, if work on them shows demonstrable evidence that the City is fiscally stable, Honolulu will be on its way to long term success. We’ll be watching.

The hour long live interview with Mayor Carlisle is on the Town Square archive at If you have an idea for a Town Square discussion, reach Beth-Ann Kozlovich at [email protected].