Ask the Candidates: Maui mayoral candidates on overtourism, cost of living, affordable housing, public safety and water
The race for Maui’s top executive job comes down to incumbent Michael Victorino, and challenger Richard Bissen. The two garnered the most votes in the Primary Election and now face off in the General Election, with the top vote getter to lead the County of Maui for the next four years as mayor.
Our Maui Now news team compiled questions focusing on topics of interest for Maui County constituents. Both candidates sat down with our Digital Director, Jack Dugan for a Q&A session, and were given three minutes each to respond.
Topics included: overtourism, cost of living, affordable housing, public safety, water rights, and a quick fire section on various issues.
With crowded airports and a return of tourism to near pre-pandemic levels, visitor congestion has surfaced as a key issue among our readers. Do you believe that over-tourism exists and if so, how should it be measured and mitigated?
Victorino: “Well, first of all, overtourism back in March of 2021 did exist. We had a pent-up demand for visitors. There were no other places open in the world and Hawaiʻi opened up. And there were many, many people coming here–uncontrolled. And we had just a surge that many of us could not handle. In fact, if you remember, I asked people not to come during that time because it was so overcrowded. Now, the rest of the world is pretty much opened up. And so I believe, if you can see the numbers lately, our high-end destination has drawn less numbers as far as people that are coming. Our occupancy rate is the lowest in the state, but our residual effects and our monies that are coming in for the par value of the hotel is on the high side. So they’re doing quite well. I think that we are looking at what Park Maui will be doing. Some of the programs that we will be instituting that will help reduce the number of visitors that are coming here. I believe that our policy of no commercial activities on Sundays and holidays at our beach parks is beginning to work, and the visitors are seeing that we are a home and not a destination, and I believe we are in a good position now. We depend on our hospitality industry but we’ve got to make sure they know–they come here to respect the resources and the people that live here. This is our home. And so with that being said, I think the hospitality industry with the Maui Nui plan, which we are a part of and we’ve spent the last two-and-a-half years working on, is now taking effect. And I think… what we call regenerative tourism will be a big part about how we move forward both in the hospitality industry and as a community.
Bissen: “So we understand that tourism is our main economic driver for our island, our county. We also understand our tourists impact our infrastructure, they impact our resources, they impact the quality of life for our residents. And so I think there is an impact when tourists are here; however, there are ways we can manage that. There are ways we can co-exist, but I think we have to understand there is a capacity that we can withstand on our island–on our three islands that make up Maui County. I’m a proponent, for example, of limiting the times and the hours that a tourist can drive in and out of Hāna as an example. So we would say: no traveling in between the hours of 6 and 8. Anytime after that, maybe limit it to like 4 to 6–whatever those times would be, you know, that we put it out to the county–I think would work. Having a toll booth maybe at Twin Falls, and one at the Winery up in ʻUlupalakua would be another, as a possible way to manage tourists that go into Hāna. I think our Hāna people–they want the tourist business, but I also think that the residents who have to drive in and out for work don’t want to have that extra impact. I also think we should pay good attention to our Maui Nui Destination Plan, which is a 2022-2023–there’s one for Maui, Molokaʻi and Lānaʻi–and I feel like we need to follow the recommendations that have been arrived at by stakeholders who took advantage and got together and held community meetings. The newest term we hear now is regenerative tourism which means–it used to be eco-tourism, it used to be sustainable tourism, and today we use this term. And I think again, it was the result of a lot of hard work for a lot of people who put the time in to come up with this plan, so I think we should honor it. And again, there’s one separate for Lānaʻi, separate for Molokaʻi, and separate for Maui so that we can manage the tourist industry. But again, keeping in mind, we know 50% of our funds received here for our county comes from this industry. And we also understand that there’s a lot of small businesses and a lot of people who earn their living off of tourism.”
Cost of living:
The cost of living has always been an issue for our island community, however it has been amplified by inflation and climbing interest rates. Costs have also been compounded by supply chain shortages. What are your real world solutions for bringing down the cost of living to make Maui more affordable to residents?
Bissen: “Well of course we need livable wages for our kamaʻāina. We also need viable career options for our youth, and we need to be very mindful of the industry that we can create for our youth. And one of the things that we should consider doing is of course mentoring and internship programs. We develop our workforce right here on Maui and I think we should start as young as high school, and of course for sure college [with] industries that would interest our youth. We could also work in partnership with the University of Hawaiʻi Maui College campus to again look at types of industry that our youth would want to enter into. And for those who go away to the mainland, we’d want to work with them when they’re home on their breaks as interns. Anyone who receives a grant from the County of Maui on my administration would be required to have an internship program there. We can’t expect to have employees if we’re not doing anything on our part to develop that workforce. So again, I think that’s something that we can do. Another way of–going back to your cost of living part of the question–is the county needs to manage its money better. We have increased our budget by over $400 million this cycle. Over $400 million–that’s incredible. I’m thinking we went from $800 million to $1.17 billion. And again, I think that is one area where we could reduce the cost of living is tightening our belt as a government. You know, we need prudent spending. If we want to expect our citizens to make sacrifices because of supply chain issues, or have to pay more for their gas, pay more for their groceries, pay more for their utilities, then we need to show that same discipline as the government, and I think be the example, and we need to be more efficient. Ways we can do that is we can leverage our money by working closer with federal and state departments and agencies, and organizations. Take advantage of our nonprofits here–in other words, working with them. They provide a lot of services to our community.”
Victorino: “Well first of all, one of the biggest issues is the affordable rentals and attainable housing. Without that basic need being met, a lot of issues occur. So what we’ve been doing is ramping up the housing initiative. I recently signed Bill 107 which now limits the amount that you can pay for your mortgage–and that will help many of our working families [to] be able to afford not only to rent, but now to even buy additional units that will be becoming available. We built 13-hundred units over the last three years, and they’ve been occupied. We have 742 in the queue now that are being built, and we have over 5,000 in the pipeline that have been approved, [and] are now ready to be started. We started one up in Wailuku at the Wailuku Apartments–324 apartments will be built on the corner of Waiʻale / Kuikahi / and Honoapiʻilani Highway that’s across Longs and Foodland in Wailuku. And so I think this is a good start. We’ve got to bring the housing–and the price of housing and the price of rentals down. That’s the start. When it comes to food, we will start to grow here, we start to become competitive in the growing of food, and being able to sell within our local markets here–our farmer’s markets and other areas. Right now we are working on helping our food hubs–our innovation center here at the University of Hawaiʻi Maui College is up and running to sell value added products. We also have a Department of Ag that will help mentor our farmers, help them to find USDA and FDA loans or grants that can help make them more stable. Also with water and other issues, we’ve been working very diligently to make sure this will bring the price of food down. And finally, taxation–I’ve always said this state has a regressive tax. That’s a state issue now… but we still must advocate for those elderly and those who are disadvantaged not to have to pay GET on food and drugs. These are two key essentials that should help bring down some of the pricing of housing. And finally, we all have to work together to share. That’s [how] we grew up. We didn’t have much. We didn’t go to the store to buy much, but we shared with our neighbors. This was really another way of keeping the price of paradise down.”
Council just passed a bill that tries to make affordable housing more affordable by changing the sales price guidelines. Developers meanwhile have said that it will make it harder to build affordable projects. Do you think this bill will help or hurt affordable housing?
Victorino: “Well, like anything else, you need to try it out before you know if it will work or not. So I believe that it is time to take a real good hard look at it. You know, we have young people that need to buy homes or be able to rent affordable apartments and units and right now, the way the prices have gone up, it has made it unreachable for many of them. So this would help to be a starting point along with my private-public partnerships that we have instituted. You know, these private partnerships help the government put in infrastructure for the reduction in price of the homes or apartments for our residents to live in, and these look very promising in the future. And so, we just recently completed the Wailuku Country Town project which is in Waikapū–which is Mr. Atherton’s project. And he’s giving us an additional 300 units for us helping him build a Waiʻale extension, and the infrastructure for the Central Waste Treatment Plant that we’re building here off of the Kūihelani Highway in Central Maui. That waste treatment plant would also be a big factor in getting all of the waste from this part of town in Central Maui, out to that plant which would be made to be and designed to use the R1 water for agriculture and irrigation. So it kills two birds with one stone. The other part of that will be–we will build 500 more units across the street from the Atherton development, which will be county owned, on county land, and we’ll be able to set the price and make sure that it’s fixed for our residents–especially our workforce, our police, fire, teachers–all of those essential workers that need housing, that want to stay here, that don’t really qualify for the 80% and lower, but they’re in the gap group which is 100%-140%… Also to make sure that our doctors, nurses, and other medical technicians–all of these workers are essential to our community, but maybe not directly connected with the hospitality industry. Also we are looking at working with the hotels and other resorts to see what kind of housing can be built either near or in the area of these resorts. There are some that are sold to us, and there are others that we are looking to bring forward in the near future.”
Bissen: “In our way of thinking, there’s no such thing as affordable housing on Maui. I think there’s two prices–expensive, and out of reach. I know we use the term affordable as a formula, as a way of determining eligibility, but the fact of the matter is, I don’t think you can call a $1 million house an affordable house–that’s the average price of homes. And it’s gone up in the last four years from the $700,000s to over a million dollars for the average cost of a house. I think that our program that we’d like to promote is kamaʻāina housing. Kamaʻāina housing is where the focus is on who is in the home, not the cost of the home. When we talk about affordable housing, what we’re really focusing on is the price of the house, and if you build 500 affordable houses and you sell 450 to people from outside of Hawaiʻi, what have you really done for the housing problem? You haven’t done anything. So again, I think we’re counting the wrong metric, or we’re looking at the wrong data. We should be focusing on who’s getting the house, who is living in the house, who’s moving into the house–and that’s what we’re trying to work on. Our kamaʻāina housing plan also involves short-term, which is accessory dwelling units, people call them ʻohana or cottages. That’s something that we want to promote. That’s the quickest way. My first 180 days in office, I’m committing to permitting 100 ADUs, and the way that we’re going to do that is pre-approve certain sets of plans–a studio, a one bedroom, a two bedroom–and if you select one of those, you’re on county water and county sewer, we’re going to fast track those permitting, and get 100 homes granted the permits. We also think we need to take better advantage of existing infrastructure. Existing infrastructure: vacant commercial space–Sports Authority, Lowe’s, the Safeway in Kahului. These are places that already have water, already have sewers, already have parking, they’ve already been disturbed–the ground, so we may as well make those into living quarters. Now, whether we leasehold, or fee simple, or rentals, mixed-use–the idea behind that is to revitalize that commercial space. Maybe putting a Starbucks or a grocery store at the bottom, and have tenants live above. It can be kūpuna, it can be millennials, people just getting their first homes, or people who want to downsize. So the housing issue is a big challenge, but we have lots of exciting ideas–so much so that other people are also adopting some of our ideas. And I think that’s how we’re going to help get our local people, our kamaʻāina, into homes so that they are not forced to leave Maui.”
Public safety is often identified as a top priority among candidates, yet Maui still faces recurring issues with vehicle thefts, use of firearms in the commission of crimes, and a police force that has a nearly 25% vacancy rate. What are some immediate solutions you have to strengthening safety within the community, and do you feel progress is being made?
Bissen: “Public safety is the number one responsibility of the mayor. And the number one responsibility is to take care of your citizens, and the way we’re going to do that is through recruitment and retention. I think that what we need to do is build morale. What we need to do is build trust. What we need to do is bring groups together–SHOPO, the police commission, the chief, the mayor, the rank-and-file, the command staff. These are all folks that need to work together and blend harmoniously. We’re about 100 officers short–like you said 25% of the force. We’re also about 50% short on our radio transmission officers, which is dispatch. And I think what the mayor can do specifically is meet with the chief, meet with the rank-and-file, and increase morale there. I think in a previous discussion I had that we were at a debate–the current mayor, his answer was: well that’s the police commission’s responsibility. No. The mayor appoints the police commission. The police commission, while they are responsible for evaluating the police chief’s performance, it’s the mayor’s job as the leader to inspire the leadership, and I think what’s lacking is that active leadership–taking control. Maybe as simple as appearing at one of the watch briefings, introducing himself/ourselves and meeting the men and women there. I was honored to be the speaker at the recent police recruit graduation. It was a small class, but there are things that you can see inspire them. I think lots of officers who come–they want to be promoted, they want to work their way up the rank. I think the mayor can help inspire them to aspire and be ambitious to do more. I think again, what we’re lacking right now is the harmony, that trust is lacking. I’ve had a degree in political science, and my law degree, but recently a hoʻoponopono certificate after five-and-a-half years of training. I thought I was going to use that in retirement, but I can see now this would come in handy as the CEO of the County of Maui, because there’s definitely relationships that need to be repaired, and trust restored. I think the mayor’s job is again to inspire those that the mayor leads, and I think that I’m the kind of leader that can bring that out of a 35 year experience with law enforcement… and providing public safety.”
Victorino: “The shortage in our police department as far as personnel has long existed, and it has gotten worse because of retirements that have come, and we have not been able to recruit. I think one of the biggest areas is some of the challenges in this day and age of becoming a police officer, first of all. It is not the same as it was 25 years ago. Many of our police officers today face a lot of different issues that they never had when they were kids and watched police officers work at that time. Part of it is we need to continue to increase their wages, help them with housing, retention bonuses are very important, and utilization of private cars may be another option that I have heard from many police officers–that they would long to have. In other words, we use their own car, and not a fleet car. Now in the area of law, with more police officers, I think we can curb some of the challenges like speeding and inattention to driving, because we can make more checkpoints. When it comes to criminal activities, I think that goes to some of the laws that are in existence. Sometimes some of the laws are too lenient to those who break them, and they tend to be repeat offenders. I think in many areas we need to strengthen the penalty phase of the law itself, and make sure that the penalty is paid, and paid in full. During this pandemic, they released a lot of prisoners because of the overcrowding in our holding cells in our Maui [Community] Correctional Center. And it was really important to know that sometimes these criminals had checkered pasts that really made it difficult to have them released. And the public wasn’t informed that some of these criminals were released. So we need to make sure the judges as well as defenders know that the consequences of not having somebody pay for what they’ve done has a profound effect–not only on the victim, but the community itself. So I’m in favor of making stronger laws, but making sure that they’re fair and equitable and that it is applied across the board–and not be sometimes good behavior you’re let go early and have another chance to strike at the public itself.”
There was strong public testimony in support of establishing a water authority to possibly take over the East Maui Irrigation system. However, a recent auditor report said that the cost to implement this is unknown and the EMI system is quite complex. Do you support the county looking into acquiring EMI and how much county money is reasonable to spend on a water authority?
Victorino: “We’ve looked at different water sources in the past–Wailuku Water Company, which I have made offers to and they have turned us down. So I’m not sure what the cost or what kind of offer would be acceptable to EMI or A&B who owns much of that system–or at least controls the system. I can’t say they own it, because a lot of that water system that we’re talking about with EMI is coming off of public land. Diversions come off of public streams and public entities. And so they have had a lease to take care of that system. And we needed a lot of water back in the day, and it was a marvelous feat of engineering to bring water from East Maui to Central Maui. But today, we have better systems. We need to have more piping and other systems that will make sure that we don’t lose as much water as we have in the past. The other part of this issue is I want everybody at the table. I want the East Maui taro farmers, and other farmers, ranchers, the residents of East Maui, Mahi Pono, EMI, A&B–everybody has to be at the table to make sure that this water authority works, and works the way it should be at work–that everybody gets what they deserve, and no waste is occurring. Finally, we’ve had a real push to restore our streams because we realize how this water diversion has affected our fisheries. And so the ʻoʻopu and the ʻōpae and other fish nearshore have not thrived like they used to because there’s no water coming down the stream or little water at all. So we know one of the biggest things is we need to make sure the water we use is used properly like the ahupuaʻa system–to make sure that we use the water as it comes down the mountain. So when it gets to the ocean, it is utilized again to rewatch, and replenish our fisheries. This is really important. So what I’m saying now is this water authority needs to be county-wide, not just in East Maui. And to purchase that, I would be in favor of it, but it has to be a collaborative effort between myself, the county, and the rest of the people of Maui County because they are the benefactors of it, and I want to make sure they are at the table to make sure it works.
Bissen: “… Water is the most important resource we need on our island, and it has to be a top priority for any leader. I think that with regard to your specific question, the issue of acquiring the permit of a license from the state is something that the county should definitely consider. I think the county should control the water. I don’t know if the county is set up to manage the water system. Controlling water means that the decision making; controlling water means allocation, distribution. The management part is the transmission–taking care of the physical apparatus… It’s about 75 miles of water line we’re talking about, and that’s a long stretch. It stretches from private land, government land. So again, it’s a very complex system as you say in your question. I think for the county, again, we should control our water. Whether or not we are able to afford what it would take to actually own the system–again the system, not really the water… The water is a public trust. I don’t know that we could ever actually own the water, but we can own the apparatus that transmits and distributes the water. So I think for us, we should really consider what the auditors’ concern was. It’s kind of hard to put a number on it. How much is it going to cost to fix? How much is it going to cost to repair? How much is it going to cost to maintain? How much is it going to cost for employees to watch over that system? And once we become the owners of it, how do we decide on who is paying? What is an equal share to pay? I guess it’s on usage–how many gallons you take from the system, but is that going to fall on the residents? Is that going to fall on commercial? Again, these are fair questions to ask, and it would have been helpful if the auditor would have come up with a number, so that when people vote on the amendment, they can have a better, more clear idea of what they’re voting on. You know if you say to someone: ‘Oh, I want to buy this car,’ and they go, ‘Well how much does it cost,’ and I say, ‘Well I’ll tell you after you tell me you want it.’ I’ll [say], ‘Well, I hope I can afford it. I think I know how much cars are in this range,’ but once you’ve decided it’s yours.’ I think that’s the complexity of it, is not knowing how much it costs.
Quick fire questions:
This section is a little more fast paced. Instead of a three minute response, a simple yes or no; or one word response was requested.
- Yes or No. Do you think there should be a cap or limit on how many visitor or hotel units can be built?
- Bissen: “Yes…”
- Victorino: “No.”
- Flooding in Kīhei is a recurrent issue. What’s the better fix: better sewer maintenance or spending more on infrastructure?
- Bissen: “All of the above…”
- Victorino: “Spending more on infrastructure.”
- Yes or No. Can Maui build its way out of the housing crisis?
- Bissen: “Probably not, but we should try.”
- Victorino: “I believe so, yes.”
- One word answer please. Name one thing in this yearʻs record-setting budget that could have been trimmed.
- Bissen: “Mayor’s office.”
- Victorino: “Use of our hospitality industry’s fund.”
- Whatʻs to blame for the major erosion happening along Kaanapali? Climate change, poor planning, or something else?
- Bissen: “… I don’t want to blame it all on planning, but obviously Mother Nature had a hand in this.”
- Victorino: “Climate change.”
- The Upcountry water meter list has been stalled for decades. How high is this on our priority list? (a) No. 1, (b) Top 10 (c) this is not a priority.
- Bissen: “Top 10.”
- Victorino: “Top 10.”
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