Harris pushes privatization, property tax hike

Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris wants to continue privatization efforts by offloading city management of facilities including the Honolulu Zoo, Blaisdell Arena, and Waikiki Shell, and will propose “modest increases” in property taxes. Harris said that that when adjusted for inflation, property taxes have been lower than they were in 1994, and that he will still try to keep the tax hike below that benchmark. He also said his proposed Capital Improvement Projects budget will be $100 million smaller than it was last year.

Harris delivered a prime-time State of the City address last night at Honolulu Hale — a speech that he wasn’t expecting to make a year ago, when he had planned to step down to run for governor.

Among the other key points of his address, Harris spoke of the promise of sports-based tourism, announced collaborations with the University of Hawaii and Hawaii Pacific University, urged the revitalization of O`ahu agriculture, highlighted city sustainability efforts, and outlined future development plans for Waikiki, which he envisions as “a pedestrian oasis of natural beauty and Hawaiian culture.”

Harris proposed that 10 percent of Hotel Room Tax revenues be earmarked specifically for cultural enhancement and environmental programs, saying, “We must give back to this special place.”

He also said downtown Honolulu could similarly become “a vibrant waterfront City with waterfront dining, shops, and bike paths, if the traffic is diverted through a Harbor tunnel.”

On the city’s mounting traffic woes, Harris expressed a willingness to hear the views of the new state administration, legislature, and city council to build “political consensus,” but made clear his intent to move forward on a number of transportation issues — likely including the controversial Bus Rapid Transit system now in development.

“We simply waste too much time in traffic jams, time better spent with family,” he said. “Thirty-two years have been spent on studies — it’s time for action.”

He also unveiled plans to introduce “smart-card” debit or monthly bus passes, and action on the city’s “Bike Master Plan.”

In his speech, Harris answered critics of the city’s financial management, saying the city is operating on an inflation-adjusted budget comparable to 1994 levels, providing more services with 8 percent fewer city workers.

“As these facts attest, Honolulu doesn’t have a spending problem – we have a declining revenue problem,” he said. “Obviously, we can’t continue in perpetuity to provide more services to a growing population with less taxes than we took in nine years ago.”

The environment was a theme woven throughout his remarks, which included plans for expanded solar water heating partnerships, household recycling, increased energy efficiency, and reduced energy dependence.

“Our island can be the international model for sustainability,” Harris said, noting that the city would be hosting the third annual Mayors’ Asia Pacific Environmental Summit in conjunction with the Asian Development Bank.

Harris is expected to deliver a detailed sustainability plan in March.

“The only thing that limits our potential is our discord — we can achieve greatness if we can achieve unity,” he said. “We must have a higher purpose – we must aspire to more than the failure of our opponents. We must aspire to the success of our society.”

The full text of the mayor’s State of the City address was posted online by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

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