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Council Rejects Controversial Ag Lands Tax & Valuation Measure

The Maui County Council Budget and Finance Committee (BF) voted Thursday, March 10 to defeat a controversial proposed measure that would have drastically restructured the way agricultural properties on Maui are assessed and raised taxes on agricultural home sites. The legislation also   added multiple layers of paperwork, dedication requirements and a substantial increase in government authority to regulate and control the business of farming here.

The measure, dubbed BF-70, had drawn an overflow crowd to an earlier Feb. 29 BF meeting. At that hearing 70 members of the public testified unanimously in opposition. The follow-up March 10 meeting, with all nine members of the council present, was a continuation of the earlier meeting. No further testimony was heard as the local lawmakers sat down at 5 p.m. to consider the measure. It was almost 9:00 when a vote was finally called and BF-70 was dead on arrival.

Nobody said it would be easy.

BF-70 had a legislative binder that weighed at least 7 pounds with correspondence that dated back to 2011 tracking the various incarnations, revisions, and ongoing opposition to an assortment of ever more draconian plans to raise taxes on Maui agricultural lands and restructure the method by which they are valued.

Over the course of 5 years and hundreds of individual testimonies – there was not a single member of the public who wrote in support of any of the plans. Yet the attack on agriculture, led by former BF committee chair Mike White, and relentlessly pursued by present BF chair Riki Hokama, would not die, and kept coming back again and again in ever more legalistic, complex and odious forms. The proposed legislation ran 17 pages, much of it new language.

In private conversations, Maui farmers characterized White as a “dog with a bone.….he would not let it go no matter how many times it was rejected.” While Hokama was variously perceived as “remote, aloof, supercilious” and unwilling to meet with or incorporate the many practical suggestions put forward by the Ag Working Group (AWG) set up by council member Don Guzman (chairman of Energy, Agriculture & Recreation committee-EAR) to advise the council on issues related to agriculture.

Indeed, MAUIWatch’s own attempts to meet with or speak to either White or Hokama prior to the Thursday night meeting fell on deaf ears. Calls and emails were not returned and neither man was ready to take questions from the media.

Councilmembers Riki Hokama and Mike White
Council members Riki Hokama and Mike White        S. Halas photo

Opposition to BF-70 catalyzed and united the farm community here. Big and small, organic and chemical, veg crop, flowers, ranchers, cattlemen, coffee growers, family farmers, corporate farmers, a host of farm organizations and their representatives put aside differences to make their opposition known and felt.

Last night there were over 100 people waiting to get into council chambers a half hour before the doors opened. By 5:00 p.m. the gallery filled rapidly and soon reached capacity. By 5:30 there were an estimated 200 Mauians filling the seats, with many standing along the back wall and quite a few holding signs “Oppose BF-70.” Of these, about 60 stayed to the bitter end.

Though it appeared that the council was in agreement that ag values and taxation methods (which had not been revised since the mid-1960s) were long overdue for updates, they took exception to the legislation under consideration which was variously characterized as burdensome, overly legalistic and complex and hostile to local agriculture.

Although virtually every member of the committee stated that they could not support the legislation as written, White and Hokama pressed on stating that the core issues were “fairness” and catching “cheats“ who used technicalities in the present system to avoid paying their fair share of property taxes. The also asserted that low taxes to farm lands were in effect subsidized by those who paid higher property taxes in other categories. The dynamic duo seemed to feel that revising the current system would “level the field” and produce as much as $19 million in new revenue for county coffers.

The farm community found an unlikely champion in the form of Don Couch, the council member from South Maui whose geographic area is best known for it resorts and visitor base.

It was Couch who repeatedly brought the situation into focus, reminded members that the ag working group had suggested a variety of much simpler, less expensive and less burdensome ways to catch cheating through a system of qualified inspectors.

Couch pointed out that one reason that farm homes were taxed at a lesser rate was because they received far fewer services than land in more urbanized parts of the county. Time and time and time again he reframed the debate, called the question, raised objections, made the motions and led the charge to sink BF-70 as written.

He was joined by Mike Victorino (Wailuku) who repeatedly objected to much of the confusing language in the measure and the way it was presented, which made it hard for those in the audience to follow the discussion.

The dialog was indeed protracted and consisted of much back and forth between the members of the committee and Jeffrey Ueoka – Deputy Corporation Counsel; Dan Agsalog – Director of Finance and Scott Teruya – head of Real Property Tax administration for the county.

Besides Couch and Victorino, other council members expressing reservations were Robert Carroll (East Maui), Gladys Baisa (Upcountry), Elle Cochran (Lahaina), Stacy Crivello (Molokai). Only council member Don Guzman (Kahului) seemed to waffle – speaking at various times in favor more equity in the way ag lands were assessed and at other times in support of the farm community and its concerns.

One of the more surprising turn of events during the course of the evening was a procedure that most who follow the legislative process here had never witnessed before.

When it became clear that BF-70 as written would either be deferred or fail, out of nowhere White produced a two-page stripped down revised version relating only to home sites and attempted to argue that this document, (obviously prepared in advance as ‘Plan B’) could be substituted for the original BF-70 on the agenda.

Virtually all of the council members felt uncomfortable with this unique and audacious procedural move. It was impossible to tell where the new proposal came from and whether the old proposal was dead.

BF chairman Hokama was equally evasive when asked to clarify the situation. It was Victorino who would not go along with the rabbit coming out of the hat at a late hour and insisted the measure(s) either be deferred or defeated and Couch who called for a voice vote which killed BF-70 and the unnamed phantom rider.

In this, an election year, it has been apparent for some time that both White and Hokama are perceived as enemies of the ag community and both are also seen as technocrats who are reluctant to make adjustments in simple and reasonable ways when a harder, more complex, confusing and expensive methods can be substituted.

The pair not only lost the vote but were singled out over and over by the aggies as unresponsive politicians who were unwilling to listen and long overdue to face opposition at the polls.

Despite assertions by White and Hokama that their efforts were based on the need for “fairness,” a level playing field and the desire to enhance county revenues, it was clear by the end of the night that opposition to the legislation as a policy matter had translated to opposition to White and Hokama in a political context.

In the end, there was a strong whiff of political suicide in the air and indications that both men had alienated a wide and deep swath of their constituents, some of whom vowed they would work to see them replaced.

Both before and after the meeting Maui farmers indicated that the search is on for candidates to oppose the two men in the upcoming election.

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About Susan Halas

Susan Halas is a Senior Political Contributor at MAUIWatch. She has followed Hawaii politics since 1976 when she moved to the Valley Isle. She was formerly a staff writer for the Maui News as well as other local print and digital publications.

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