Mayor Kenoi Urges Lingle Administration to Reconsider Kulani Closure and Ag Inspector Layoffs

From the Mayor’s Office:

Below is testimony Mayor Billy Kenoi provided in Hilo tonight to the Senate Ad Hoc Committee reviewing the proposals by Gov. Linda Lingle’s administration to close Kulani Correctional Facility and lay off all but one agricultural inspector in the County of Hawai’i.

“Aloha, Senator Hanabusa, Senator Kokubun and members of the Senate:

Thank you for this opportunity to provide information on the potential impacts within the County of Hawai’i from plans announced by Gov. Linda Lingle’s administration to close the Kulani Correctional Facility and lay off all but one of the 14 state agricultural inspectors who now work on the Island of Hawai’i.

These proposals would have very serious and negative repercussions for our working families and our farmers, and I want to take this opportunity to respectfully urge the Lingle administration to reconsider.

Agriculture is one of our very few export industries, and development of this growing sector of our economy is critical because it offers a measure of stability to protect us from the sometimes painful fluctuations in the world tourism market. For years the County, the State Legislature and previous state administrations nurtured agriculture to try to diversify our economy and to move the state closer to self-sufficiency. Eliminating almost all of the agricultural inspectors working in the County of Hawai’i undermines all those years of effort in a single stroke, and it would be a mistake.

I will not attempt to list all of the enterprises that are put at risk by this decision, but please consider a few of the implications. The agricultural sector that would be placed in the greatest jeopardy with the loss of inspectors is the potted plant and nursery industry, a growing market that is now worth more than $40 million a year on the Island of Hawai’i alone. Each of our 170 nurseries needs to be inspected and certified twice a year to qualify for the export market, a process that is impossible without qualified agricultural inspectors.

I know you are also familiar with the varroa mite and its potential to do harm to our queen bee and honey industries, which together are worth another $10 million. Without agricultural workers to pursue bio-control strategies to combat this pest, the damage to the bee industry could be profound. Worse yet, loss of bees needed for agricultural pollination could in turn harm the macadamia nut, rambutan and lychee sectors, which together are now worth more than $40 million a year.

I have been speaking about industries and dollars, but let us not lose sight of the people who will be affected by the damage done by the loss of the inspectors. Most farming provides a modest income at best, and our farm industry supports thousands of working families who depend on that income to pay their bills. The small farmers who struggle to make a living surely rank among our boldest and most hard-working entrepreneurs, and they deserve continued support from the state.

The plan to close Kulani Correctional Facility is also harmful to the local economy and to working families beyond the 76 employees who would lose their jobs in the proposed prison shutdown. Many of these employees operate treatment and job training programs at Kulani that help to rehabilitate prisoners, which makes our communities safer in the long run. It would be a mistake to abandon those employees and their important work.

Outside the prison, local vendors including food suppliers do tens of thousands of dollars worth of business with Kulani each month, and the loss of sales to Kulani would force some of those local businesses to consider layoffs of their own. This ripple effect in the local economy from the Kulani closure could not happen at worse time.

Hawai’i’s correctional system is already overcrowded, and closing Kulani Correctional Facility appears likely to result in more prison inmates being shipped to prisons in Arizona or elsewhere on the Mainland. If that is the case, the state in effect will be exporting correction officer and support staff jobs to the Mainland along with the prison inmates, a policy that makes little sense in these tough economic times.

Again, we urge the Lingle administration to reconsider the decisions to close Kulani and to lay off agriculture inspectors because both plans are contrary to the long-term economic health of our State and County.

Mahalo for this opportunity to discuss these issues.”

Aloha,

William P. Kenoi

MAYOR

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