Department Responds To Star-Advertiser Articles
The following is the un-edited opinion piece which was submitted
to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in response to their recent
series of articles critical of our Department
May 8, 2013
The Star-Advertiser’s three day series highlights a critical challenge facing this Administration: how to effectively manage DHHL’s land resources with severely limited resources until the lands can be homesteaded.
While we appreciated the opportunity to respond to questions posed by the Star-Advertiser, it appears that the complexity of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act caused some of the important information that we shared to be left out that, perhaps, would have helped to better clarify and frame the challenges facing our department and our beneficiaries. In the interest of providing that clarity, please allow us the opportunity to again share these facts:
A revocable permit (RP) allows use of certain DHHL lands on a month-to-month basis and can be cancelled at any time upon a 30 day notice. An RP is not a long-term revenue generating commercial lease. It is not a long-term license, nor is it a 99-year homestead lease. The RP program was intended to be principally a land management tool.
This is because some of the DHHL acreage that is not currently in homesteading or in general commercial leases are large undeveloped and remote properties. These lands are subject to illegal dumping, trespassing, illegal uses, or overgrowth that can lead to fire hazards if there is no presence on the land. Fencing, signage, cutting vegetation, monitoring, etc. is very expensive to maintain over thousands of acres.
In light of severely limited staffing and financial resources, the RP program was one option the department developed years ago to provide presence on these lands, to maintain the lands, and deter dumping and other challenges, at no cost to DHHL. The RP program does provide for some revenues from DHHL lands that are “as is” (for example, raw, undeveloped land with minimal infrastructure) instead of simply being a major land management cost item in DHHL’s budget. However, as much of the liability and responsibility shifts to the permit holder, the RP program also reduces DHHL’s risk and the risk to DHHL’s limited financial trust assets.
By contrast, 99-year Homestead lease awards require a reliable source of adequate funding. Without the capital improvement funding, homesteads are just not developed. Without the use of sufficient general funds for operations, DHHL must fund its operations from the revenue it generates.
Both of these enormous challenges, maintaining DHHL’s inventory of lands across six islands until the lands are awarded for homesteads, and generating revenue on these lands using commercial ground leases that must go through a strict and complex multi-step approval process are handled by the same small Division made up of five land agents and a Division Administrator. Are they overwhelmed? Yes. Are they understaffed? Absolutely. But this is all we can afford.
The last time DHHL received general funding for its administrative costs was in 2010, when it received $1 million, a small fraction of the overall costs of operations. On the development side, the Act 14 land settlement reached in 1995 has provided for a stream of payments to DHHL of $30 million over the past 18 years. But, we have used these funds to develop thousands of residential homestead over that time. These payments come to an end in 2015 leaving DHHL’s future funding uncertain.
The ultimate solution for DHHL and its beneficiaries would be for the State to allocate sufficient financial resources to provide every eligible native Hawaiian beneficiary with a lot equipped with adequate infrastructure including water, along with the maintenance and upkeep of the infrastructure in our existing communities. This cost, which easily runs into the billions of dollars, could be funded at one time if the State faced no other critical needs. However, since the state faces a myriad of other concerns and issues, resources for DHHL over its long history has come from the State in fits and starts.
However, even with all these challenges before us, all is not doom and gloom. This year, for the first time, Governor Abercrombie’s budget included a request for $14.7 million in general funding for DHHL’s administrative expenses in response to the Nelson lawsuit, and the Legislature engaged in a discussion regarding what is “sufficient” to fund the operations and administration of DHHL. The outcome? We received $9.6 million in general funding for operations for DHHL, more than has ever been provided in DHHL’s history. It’s a good beginning, but a dialogue that is far from over.
Going forward, it is the intention of this Administration to assess the current state of our program, identify areas of weaknesses, and implement the proper reforms. But change often requires more than just DHHL. We are extremely grateful for the unwavering support of Governor Abercrombie and the assistance of key cabinet officials who have pledged their support in helping us achieve the improvements we desire.
Can the RP program be improved? Yes, by establishing clear policies and procedures; adequate and timely enforcement; and prudent decision-making regarding the way DHHL lands are used as they await development for homesteads. These are the goals the DHHL’s new Administration will strive for.
Jobie M.K. Masagatani
Chair, Hawaiian Homes Commission and
Director, Department of Hawaiian Home Lands