Budget committee approves tax extension for rail despite mayor’s absence

Honolulu City Councilmembers are asking where Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is as they decide whether to extend a tax surcharge to pay for rail.

The council’s budget committee Wednesday passed a bill which extends the surcharge from 2022 to 2027. Rail officials say the money is needed to build the entire 20-mile project.

That’s just days after the mayor said in a news release that $250 million from the federal government would be at risk if the council does not approve an extension.

“I was hoping that there would be some kind of communication directly either from him or from his office to the council with regards to that,” said Councilmember Joey Manahan, who said he had not spoken to Caldwell since the mayor’s return from Washington, D.C.

The budget committee approved the extension, even though councilmembers had questions about the meeting the mayor had with the Federal Transit Administration, and what their vote would mean.

“Today, he was missing. He was absent,” said Councilmember Trevor Ozawa. “It says that he’s a bad business partner right now. We’re in this together whether we like it or not. He’s the mayor. We’re the council. We’re in this together as the city.”

Councilmembers talked about the possibility of not approving the extension, possibly putting a halt to the project and having to pay back federal funds.

“We can’t use any of the surcharge money to pay back that $2 billion, so that amount would have to come from some other source of funding, primarily property taxes for us,” Manahan said. “We haven’t done the math but I would assume we would have to increase (property taxes). That is a huge amount.”

Councilmembers did approve a $910-million cap on the surcharge extension, instead of the full $1.5 billion that would come from the five-year extension.

In a statement, the mayor said “the cap passed is too restrictive,” but he did not address councilmembers’ complaints about his lack of communication with them.

The full council still needs to approve the bill twice before the general excise tax surcharge is extended. The last vote is expected next year.

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