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Civil Beat 2024 Q&A: Kauai County Council — Felicia Cowden

By The Civil Beat Staff / June 21, 2024

Reading time: 11 minutes.

Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 10 Primary Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.

1. What is the biggest issue facing Kauai County, and what would you do about it?

The biggest issue facing Kauai County is the inflationary pressure on the cost of living. Housing stability is the foundation of a vibrant economy and necessary to avoid the loss of our generational community and working population.

I support our Kauai County Housing agency’s significant recent gains in acquiring lands for building workforce housing communities that address a range of needs from home ownership to senior, family and transitional housing rental facilities. Allowing guest homes, lowering real property taxes, and encouraging private enterprise to adapt aging condominiums, as well as innovative designs for providing employee housing are important actions we are taking. 

Offering inspiring opportunities to our young adult population is essential to a healthy and thriving community. People’s ability for remote work has emerged as a strong economic driver with little environmental impact or strain on our physical infrastructure providing greater flexibility and freedom for our people. Offering training and internships is essential to help retain the important skills that keep our island infrastructure running.

2. Kauai has proven vulnerable to natural disasters especially on the island’s north shore. What would you do to improve disaster preparedness?

Our Kauai Emergency Management Agency has had many learning opportunities to develop strategies for disaster preparedness; and profoundly from Lahaina’s experience. As council committee chair for public safety, I am actively working with our state and county first-responder teams, large landowners, Kauai Island Utility Cooperative and Hawaii Wildfire Mitigation Organization to encourage the development of FireWise Communities and larger stakeholder strategies. Our Fiscal Year 2025 state and county budgets have included new water tenders, heavy equipment for fire breaks, evacuation routes and management tools, and a plan for a wildfire equipment base-yard on Kauai’s westside. 

The glaring need is to have additional, alternative routes to avoid trapping communities in an emergency on their “one road.” Reacquiring old cane haul roads is perhaps the quickest solution for emergency evacuation development. The placement of additional emergency sirens in fresh areas, and adding river and reservoir gauge levels to our KEMA webpage are underway. More emergency storm shelters are needed. 

Our Kauai community members demonstrate they are interested in working together at the public, private and individual levels. I am eager to work to bring as many stakeholders together to create greater emergency resilience. It takes all of us to share responsibility in mitigating and rebounding through natural disasters.  

3. There are nearly 14,000 cesspools on Kauai that must be removed by 2050. With an average cost of $15,000 to $30,000 to convert to septic, many homeowners say making the transition is not affordable. How can the county help to jump-start cesspool replacements?

The cesspool conversion is a difficult and largely unfunded state mandate for the people of Kauai. In 2024 dollars, a septic conversion can easily cost $40,000, often much more, resulting in a roughly half-billion-dollar spending requirement. That is why it is not happening quickly; it is more than the county’s annual budget plus capital improvement projects.

There is a mindset that is vigilantly waiting for a technology improvement with a lower cost. The County of Kauai has a small program in place through our Housing Department prepared to manage and help distribute assistance funding, but it is deeply underfunded at present.

Another program under consideration couldhelp make loans to commercial properties for cesspool conversions, though not for houses. Community groups can strategize with public guidance for building neighborhood wastewater systems that might qualify for non-traditional financing. We have 26 more years to gradually chip away at this requirement. My hope is better technology shines forward. I believe it can.  

4. Traffic is getting worse on Kauai, and different regions face different challenges. What would be your approach to improve Kauai’s transportation problems?

In some places on Kauai, traffic has actually improved with additions of lanes and traffic circles instead of stoplights. Different regions face different challenges. Having an alternate safety route out of an area ideally would be a permanent additional street allowing for more flow. Kilauea is an example in which we have long-awaited traffic circle(s) and the extension of Namahana Parkway from the center of town to Kuhio Highway providing alternate access. 

The most effective way to reduce traffic is to encourage the regionalization of services and businesses, offering mixed-use neighborhoods and returning to community designs where people work, shop, live and educate in the same area. We need the range of home affordability to be built in relatively close proximity. Public transportation continues to be important. 

Having walkable communities is common sense and a reflection of the history of our species. This does not mean that private automobile ownership or freedom to travel is being withheld, as seems to be a growing concern for some people. Mentally, physically, environmentally and economically, it is efficient to walk more, drive less, and know your neighbors.  

5. The median price for a single-family home on Kauai has topped $1 million. What would you do to help address the shortage of low-income, affordable and middle-class housing?

Question No. 1 largely answered this strategy as the shortage of housing is our No. 1 challenge for retaining our population and vitality.

What I would add is that it is equally important to not over-tax our market rate rentals. We need to keep our existing tenants in their homes and jobs. Kauai’s real property tax policies have a number of protections in place for our owner-occupant residents. However, not everyone is lucky enough to own a home and the nonowner occupant residential tax class can be punishing for homes blessed to be in the near-shore beach areas where even simple homes are worth millions.

Our tax policy, which I fought, displaces long-term renters, particularly those who work for a living. High tax classes carry through with a sale to be the responsibility of the next owner, making it very difficult for any home to transfer back into a full-time owner-occupied residence. In my view, we need to explore different strategies than “ad valorem” property assessments. In the high inflation period in which we are living, our economy and the ability to have a home is like a high stakes game of musical chairs causing us to lose our beloved people.  

6. Kauai’s landfill in Kekaha will soon run out of capacity and there’s still no timely plan in place to build a new one. What can the county council do to address what could become a garbage crisis for the island?

The landfill and our continuous creation of a waste stream is a crisis for Kauai. First and foremost, we all need to learn to purchase and produce less disposable goods. Locally grown food, particularly in neighborhood agriculture, is remarkable at waste reduction; I have lived experience. The county believes it has identified a new location close to the Navy base in Mana for a long-term landfill. We have a strategy for stretching the waste mountain in Kekaha for hopefully a long enough period. All it takes is a hurricane to fill the space we have left. 

There is deep community resistance for exploring most types of waste-to-energy to avoid air pollution, while Kekaha lives with the water and land contamination risks. Every community on Kauai needs to hold gratitude to Kekaha for managing the garbage that is not thrown away but moved to their community. I also extend gratitude to the good work accomplished by our solid waste crew. We must be open-minded to hearing the will of the westside and our solid waste team as we work, at rapid pace, to have our next solution in place. Mahalo Kekaha, for holding stewardship for the rest of us.  

7. Overtourism can degrade the environment, threaten biodiversity, contribute to wear and tear on infrastructure, generate traffic and disrupt neighborhoods. What more can be done to better manage the island’s tourism sector?

Managing tourism, in order to retain the residents’ quality of life and the visitors’ positive experience, is essential. A profound policy shift has occurred which resulted in requiring the Destination Management Action Plan that has guided the visitor industry away from “marketing Hawaii” to promoting “destination stewardship.”

The Hawaii Tourism Authority revenues are now divided between the Kauai Visitors Bureau and the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement with an emphasis on perpetuating and recognizing authentic Hawaiian cultural practices as what defines Hawaii with four strategic pillars of protection. We are at the beginning of this process. 

The Airports Division of the transportation department heard the voice of Kauai and is optimizing Lihue Airport without adding more gates to essentially restrict the volume of entry onto the island. 

There is a balance of creating employment opportunities that amplify cultural practices that generate revenue into our economy and keeping visitor numbers in control. The tourism industry supports the tax base that helps to reduce infrastructure costs to the residents.

The development of new economic drivers, such as agriculture, is needed to become less dependent on tourism.

8. Should more be done to encourage agriculture and food sustainability on Kauai? What would you suggest?

I am passionate about food sustainability. Our plantation past had neighborhood agriculture as an active part of having a home.

My personal experience, in my 1/3-acre homesite in Kilauea, is that I almost effortlessly grow an incredible amount of food with minimal effort, in ambient conditions, through edible landscaping with Polynesian and Southeast Asian plants. We are lucky on Kauai. It is possible to feed ourselves. It is much more difficult to grow food for money. 

Our modern lifestyles and needing to work many jobs drives us to crave the convenience of grocery stores and prepared food. In a time of crisis, we would begin to harvest the foods rotting on the ground all over the island. There are more pigs than people. Chickens are everywhere. There is fish in the sea. 

Dependence on food shipped from elsewhere is a choice. 

Respect the hunter, the fisherman, the rancher and the farmer/gardener. Help them to thrive with access from mountain to makai. We need to foster generational knowledge and practices. If we were ever to have a societal disruption, with their help, we will be fine.

Projects like Kilauea’s Community Agricultural Park should be in every region.

9. What would you do to ensure transparency and accountability in county government?

Transparency is very important to me. If I were the council chair, I would have a public briefing meeting once a month in which the council members would been provided, three weeks in advance, with a monthly synopsis of the performance measures from the county departments, the commission reports, burn-rate of the budget, visitor numbers, real estate sales and a bullet-point summary, when necessary, of the larger events in the state, nation, or perhaps the world that may influence our decisions. The council members and public would have the opportunity to review the progress and ask for critical supportive information in the meeting.

Encouraging comprehensive understanding for both policymakers and the civically engaged public would help improve our decision-making and better support our county employees in their job functions.

Currently, each council member is left to possibly discover this information driven through their own curiosity and efforts. This structure would allow needed, more accurately informed council discussions to overcome the constraints imposed by the Sunshine Laws on counties by our state Legislature. No doubt, better policies would be developed and we would increase public trust. In my view, this would be a win-win-win-win strengthening our county administration’s best management practices.

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