A Honolulu City Council committee got its first look at just how the city is spending $387 million in federal COVID-19 assistance funds. One concern: the millions that have gone to the Honolulu Police Department.
The council’s economic assistance and revitalization committee held a special meeting yesterday to get an update on the city’s spending of the federal CARES Act dollars.
Committee Chair Tommy Waters noted HPD’s receipt of a large portion of the federal money. That includes nearly $14 million in overtime pay and $2 million dollars for trucks and vans.
Waters questioned whether those funds could have been better spent to help people in the community.
"We got people hurting out there. We got people who need food and need help, when I’m looking at $2.4 million was expended to the households.
"But for us to look at all this money spent on police to lock people down, and keep them in their house. You think of this money could have been better spent – instead of police locking people down – on educating people on how to stay safe, on working with the hospitals, working with the medical community, and getting the money out through that."
City Chief Resilience Officer Josh Stanbro says he knows that other efforts – such as education, testing and tracing – would have helped now. But he defended the police spending.
"When we go back in time, and we look at April, when we look at May. The main concern at that time was quarantine. People coming in from the outside. Who enforces that? HPD – even though that’s a state issue – we incur the costs on that. And we were trying to make sure that what we thought at the time was fortified."
Stanbro says HPD also had to enforce other state and city emergency orders, and operate screening and triage facilities for the homeless.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell's plan to hire 250 contact tracers also drew questions at the committee meeting.
Caldwell has been unhappy with the state's contact tracing program, which has left many who test positive for COVID-19 without a call from the health department.
The mayor plans to spend $6.6 million in federal funds to set up the city's own testing and contact tracing effort. But that didn't sit well with City Councilman Ron Menor.
"It seems to me that the primary responsibility to fund that should be coming with the state," Menor said. He said from recent media reports, it doesn't appear that the state health department has expended much of the $57 million that Congress approved several months ago.
Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz had announced that the sum was going to the state for widespread testing and hiring of contact tracers.
"You know, to me...there's so many needs in our county," Menor said. "The state's got the resources, they got substantial federal funding. You know, why can't we get them to fund more?"
Stanbro agreed. But he said at the end of the day, the city has an obligation to protect Oahu residents, regardless of the source of funding.
Stanbro says coordination is underway with the health department on the city's contact tracing plans and that the relationship with the department has improved over the past two weeks.
The timing coincides with the departure of state Epidemiologist Sarah Park, who had resisted the city's efforts to scale up testing and contact tracing.
The city will need to use up its CARES Act money by the end of the year or return it to the federal government.