Budget spat puts outlook in limbo for some city jobs

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Government budget-making has turned political this year at Honolulu Hale, and it’s leaving hundreds of city workers in doubt about what happens to their jobs in just a matter of weeks.

With city jobs in limbo over a budget dispute, KHON2 wanted to know what will it take to make sure certain core city services, like some lifeguarding, can continue past July 1.

Hundreds of city jobs across Oahu are done by people on what’s called “personal services contracts.”

“Through attrition, retirement, moving to other places and so forth, we’re always filling positions,” Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said. “But the demand for services never ends, so the short-term solutions is these personal service contracts.”

But when those contractors got letters recently stating their contract extensions may not be authorized past the end of the month, it caused a bit of a panic. The administration said it’s because of a last-minute change the City Council put in the budget adding restrictions on those contract positions. The budget chair explains the move this way:

“Before we passed the budget the mayor had a press conference like criticizing our budget, saying the nonprofits and accountability, etc., etc., so we divided the money,” Budget Chairperson Ann Kobayashi said. “They don’t need permission to spend it, they just have to let us know how it’s going to be spent, because the administration wants accountability, transparency, and this is what this does.”

The mayor’s administration saw it differently, interpreting the move to mean they don’t have spending flexibility.

“When we started to go through it,” Mayor Caldwell said. “We saw that it would impact critical, core function kinds of things, like lifeguard at our county pools, lifeguards at our beach during the busy summer season.”

And out went the letters warning of job limbo.

“It would just seem ridiculous that would be one of the things they’re bickering about cutting, when it’s for the community and the community pays the taxes to the politicians who dole out the money,” said taxpayer John Lobdell, while enjoying a swim at one of the county-park pools.

The more than 400 contract workers citywide are people filling in on jobs like lifeguarding, trash truck drivers and trash inspectors, dump scale attendants, even people enforcing the new stored property ordinance, the medical examiner and liquor investigators.

Also, driver license clerks — key to shortening those long lines — and also EMTs, even people who work at everything from the zoo to the police station.

When KHON2 started asking questions about the job letters, the two sides got talking to each other, and tell KHON2 they’re close to a fix.

“What can you do, what will you do, to make sure we don’t have an interruption of service?” KHON2 asked Kobayashi. She responded, “There’s nothing we can do. They have the money, they have the authority, they just have to have the will to pay these people.”

“As we sit here in the middle of June, when will the contract folks know whether or not they can work beyond July 1st?” KHON2 asked the mayor, who replied, “I think it’s going to go beyond July 1, we’ll continue to work with the council to make sure that happens, so it’s kind of rolling process here. I wish I could say it’s going to be of an absolute certain date, and I’m sure the contract people would like to know that.”

Until they work out those differences, the mayor says they have a way to keep paying the bills.

“It’s going to be a rolling process — we’re going to be looking for money rolling from one account to another to continue to pay for these functions,” Mayor Caldwell said. “There’s flexibility there in terms of how departments manage their money and are able to fund these positions. And as we go forward, if it looks like we need money to continue these positions, then we would approach and work with the council. This is where Ann Kobayashi is saying that perhaps we can work some kind of agreement, and I’m hopeful, I think we can do that.”

KHON2 will follow to up to make sure this dispute gets resolved and doesn’t affect the services you pay for meanwhile.

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