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Wednesday, March 15, 2023
Full text of Mayor Blangiardi’s 2023 State of the City address
By Video @ 4:38 AM :: 1952 Views :: Honolulu County

Full text of Mayor Blangiardi’s 2023 State of the City address

HONOLULU – Mayor Rick Blangiardi on Tuesday delivered his 2023 State of the City address at the Mission Memorial Auditorium on the Frank F. Fasi Civic Center Grounds in Honolulu. The full text of the speech, reads as follows:

 ***

Good morning, and aloha.

This is my third State of the City address since we have been in office for the past two years and nearly three months.

For all of us, this has been the most extraordinary period of our lives, due to COVID’s adverse psychological and financial impact on communities everywhere — and most certainly on the people of our island home, who have endured the same unprecedented impacts on their lives.

For me personally, providing meaningful leadership for the City and County of Honolulu during this time has proved to be the honor and challenge of a lifetime. 

However, this has not been an individual leadership challenge.

Instead, it is one that requires dedication and hard work from my entire leadership team of extraordinary men and women in our Cabinet, and the thousands of dedicated City employees who work and care for our island home.

When I look around this auditorium, I see a room full of people who play vital roles in the successful workings of the City and County of Honolulu. 

Unfortunately, it is impossible to recognize everyone today, and all that you do for O’ahu. But I want you to know that if you are in this room, you are here because you are making a meaningful difference.

I would be remiss, however, if I did not recognize key leaders with us today:

First, Governor Josh Green, and Lt. Governor Sylvia Luke.

Together, I am confident we will create better alignment between the State and the City and County of Honolulu, and I will speak more to our joint efforts this morning.

Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald, of the Hawaii Supreme Court. Thank you for being here today.

Hawaii State Representative and Speaker of the House, Scott Saiki. Thank you for coming.

To our distinguished former governors: George Ariyoshi, John Waiheʻe, Linda Lingle, and Neil Abercrombie, thank you for your leadership and sage advice.

And to Governor Ariyoshi, who turned 97 years young on Sunday, happy birthday, and God bless you, sir!

To our former mayors, Mufi Hannemann and Kirk Caldwell, thank you for your past service and commitment to Oʻahu.

To former Congresswoman and Chair of the HART Board, Colleen Hanabusa, my most sincere mahalo for your leadership and unwavering commitment to public service. 

To our U.S. military partners, represented by:

General Charles Flynn, Commanding General, U.S. Army Pacific;

Maj. Gen. Mark Hashimoto, U.S. Marine Corps, Mobilization Assistant to the Commander, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command;

Col. Speros Koumparakis, Commander, Marine Corps Base Hawaii;

And Colonel Steven McGunegle, Commander, U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii; along with their guests and representatives, our sincere appreciation for your service to our country, to Hawaii, and for being here today.

To Director General Lin, of Taipei, Consul General Hong, of Korea, Consul General Fernandez, of the Philippines, and Consul General Ketchen, of New Zealand, thank you for being here.

A special mahalo to Jackie Conant, here today representing Congressman Ed Case, and Kendra Oishi, representing Congresswoman Jill Tokuda.

Thank you for being here.

To Dennis Francis, publisher of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, I sincerely appreciate you being with us this morning.

And finally, to the members of the Honolulu Youth Commission. You are the future of Honolulu, and the reason we all labor and work so hard to improve our island home. To Chair Daniel Pruder, and the other members with us today, please stand up and be recognized. 

I want to take a minute to give special recognition to the elected members of our Honolulu City Council, the most important partners to our administration.

As I call your name, please stand and be recognized.

First, Chair Tommy Waters, Council District Four.

Tommy, thank you for your willingness to work collaboratively with our team, and for your leadership of the Council. While we may not always agree, I have great respect for the tremendous responsibility you hold as City Council Chair, and a deep appreciation for your dedication to serve.

Council Vice-Chair Esther Kiaʻāina, representing District Three.

Your passion to serve is truly infectious, and I am humbled by your preparation and knowledge on every topic, as well as your tenacity when it comes to making things happen!

Budget Chair Radiant Cordero, Council District Seven.

Congratulations on your new and very important leadership role on the Council, and thank you for taking that new challenge head-on during our budget hearings last week.

Councilmember Calvin Say, representing Council District Five.

Thank you for your invaluable ongoing guidance and coaching. Your excellent work as Budget Chair these past two years helped us tremendously, and we look forward to working with you as the Chair of the Committee on Zoning.

Councilmember Andria Tupola, Council District One.

Your relentless work ethic, your determination and your ability to provide and execute new ideas to best serve the people of your district is truly inspiring. 

You lead with grit and dedication, and your “Restore, Reconnect, Revive” program for the homeless on the Waianae Coast is truly making a difference. Bravo!

Councilmember Augie Tulba, of Council District Nine.

Clearly, your heart and soul are in the right place when it comes to serving your district, and I am personally very grateful and proud of you, and your daughter Mahealani, for your courageous leadership on Bill 52, the anti-bullying legislation we signed into law just last month.

And to the 3 newest councilmembers: Val Okimoto, from District Eight; Matt Weyer, of District Two; and Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, from District Six;

Once again, welcome to the Honolulu City Council! I speak for our entire team in saying that we are thrilled to be working with each and every one of you.

Finally, I want to acknowledge our Cabinet leadership team, as well as a few other people who have contributed so much to our success this past year.

Please know if you and your department are not mentioned today, it is only because of time limitations and in no way reflects on the importance or the significance of your leadership, or what you and your teams are accomplishing.

To the following individuals, please know I could not be more proud and grateful for all that you do, and the intelligence and humanity you bring each and every day:

Managing Director, Mike Formby; Deputy Managing Director, Krishna Jayaram; our Corporation Counsel, Dana Viola; Andy Kawano, Director of Budget and Fiscal Services; Sam Moku, my Chief of Staff; Communications Director, Scott Humber; Deputy Communications Director, Ian Scheuring; and my Executive Assistant, Ms. Lisa Chun.

Our weekly meetings and your many selfless contributions, each and every day, have been invaluable and inspiring.

Thank you!

To my children Matt, Laura and Ryan, I couldn’t be more proud of the men and the woman you’ve become.

And lastly, to the love of my life, my wife, Karen. Thank you for your sacrifice, understanding, encouragement and unwavering support in taking on the many challenges that being married to the mayor has created for you.

Your love means everything to me!

I want to start today with a favorite quote of mine from Daniel Burnham, one of America’s greatest architects and urban designers: “Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

My mission in becoming Mayor was clearly focused on problem solving and building trust and confidence in local city government by taking significant action against long standing problems facing the City and County of Honolulu. 

Two plus years into the job, I remain more committed than ever — and to quote Daniel Burnham, I assure you that me and my team are making no little plans.

Early on in office, we were most fortunate to be selected to the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a cohort of 40 Mayors from 23 U.S. cities, with the balance from 11 countries spanning four continents. This was a tremendous learning experience for me personally, and one that I shared widely with our entire team.

The rigorous year-long program afforded us a local, national and global perspective on the complex and obstinate problems that mayors, as well as their leadership teams around the world, encounter in municipal government.

Several of our Bloomberg-Harvard professors spoke of the intractable challenges facing municipal governments, referring to them as Wicked Problems, a term that has been used in academia since the mid-1970s.

Wicked Problems threaten the vitality of communities everywhere. They persist despite countless attempts to resolve. Their structure is contradictory and ever-changing. And above all, they are long-standing issues for which the public has grown weary and has little to no tolerance.

These problems require City leaders to develop their teams with an evolving vision and discipline to problem solving. That discipline, which our Cities Leadership course referred to as ‘execution-as-learning,’ requires:

  • Intensive cross-sector collaboration;
  • Sharing of expertise and knowledge;
  • An adaptive vision and approach;
  • Safe spaces, to express opinions and take risks;
  • And, most of all, a willingness to embrace change and innovation to create new ideas, discovered by tapping into the intellectual capital of your team.

For Wicked Problems, there are no blueprints, or conventional plans. You must be willing to embrace innovation, and you must be willing to experiment, take risks, test your thinking, learn from your experience, and then re-execute.

When we came into office, we had our fair share of Wicked Problems, and we approached every one of them with a similar methodology. We challenged our team to think big, collaborate, and take advantage of each other’s knowledge and expertise.

We needed, first and foremost, to evaluate the work that had already been done in the past and fully understand the problems we were facing before proposing solutions. And we needed to take more risks and innovate new approaches to problem solving.

This process works, and it is much more sophisticated than simply learning as you go.

It’s about execution, based on knowledge, risk-taking and innovation.

Today, instead of what we would call a traditional State of the City address, I want to spend our time sharing with you Honolulu’s top Wicked Problems, how our team has operated in our approach to solving them, and the significant results we have achieved thus far. 

First, our lack of affordable housing and homelessness — two related, but distinctly different Wicked Problems, and top priorities for both the State, and our administration especially.

When we came into office, we assumed an Office of Housing with only two staff members, both of whom were principally focused on homelessness. It was clear to us early on that the City’s housing program had been fragmented since at least 1997, when the troubled Department of Housing and Community Development was disbanded.

And even though the Office of Housing was created in 2011, in an attempt to re-unify those efforts, it was never funded or staffed at the level that was necessary to independently execute a formidable housing program without the assistance of other City departments.

We knew that operational structure could no longer remain the status quo. So we formed an Affordable Housing Working Group, co-chaired by Mike Formby and myself, where all City departments that touch affordable housing meet weekly to drive execution on city affordable housing policies, programs, and projects. 

This created cross-sector collaboration that was desperately needed.

We began by inviting developers, non-profits, affordable housing experts and stakeholders to these meetings to help us understand the history and complexity of our housing shortage. We wanted answers to the following questions:

  • What were the obstacles getting in our way?
  • What could we do to optimize the city’s role in creating new housing, and rehabilitating existing housing?
  • Where could we create opportunities for innovation?
  • How could we make a meaningful difference?

Our answers to those questions led to the creation of several new programs.

First, we developed a bill to incentivize small lot owners to build affordable housing projects throughout our communities — especially in the urban core. Bill 1, our administration’s first piece of legislation, provides financial incentives after housing units have been constructed and are ready for occupancy.

We now have one complex completed, five under construction, three with permits in hand, and momentum is growing, with 35 projects and counting in the pipeline.

To further incentivize affordable housing development on small lots, Governor Green has proposed matching $10 million dollars to our City funds. Governor, your proposal has exceptional potential to stimulate additional small lot construction. Thank you.

Second, for the first time in 25 years, our administration re-established a municipal Private Activity Bond program to help fund the rehabilitation and development of affordable housing units on Oahu. Despite not having a handbook or administrative rules, we not only stood up the program in 18 months, but this past December we selected two projects — in Chinatown and Waipahu — with over 500 affordable housing units. Those units will be now rehabilitated, and their affordability status extended, for the next 60 years as a direct result of our PAB program.

None of this would have been possible without the excellent work of our Affordable Housing Working Group, led by the bond program knowledge of Corporation Counsel, under the tireless leadership of Dana Viola, and the addition of Craig Hirai, the former state Budget and Finance Director, and former HHFDC Executive Director.

Craig has been instrumental in helping us work closely with HHFDC so that we smartly align City and state funding with our many affordable housing projects.

At the same time our Affordable Housing Working Group was standing up new programs, we were also driving execution on existing affordable housing projects — some of which started under Mayor Caldwell but were completed in 2022.

They include:

West Loch Modular, with 57 units, fully rented.

Harbor Arms, in Pearl City, 30 units, fully rented.

Halewaiolu, a long-overdue and much needed affordable housing project for seniors in Chinatown that broke ground last June, creating 155 units that will open this fall. We want to offer a very special mahalo to the Michaels Organization for their unwavering commitment to seeing this project become a reality.

Varona Village, where we are now finalizing completion of all preconditions to development. This is a commitment 30 years in the making, and the first step in redeveloping this historic Ewa Villages community into a promised affordable housing community of 140 homes.

Dee-Lite Bakery, a Dillingham property that was purchased in 2019 by Mayor Caldwell that we will transform into an affordable housing project along the rail line.

Mohala Mai. Just last week I had the honor of joining Governor Linda Lingle and members of the Women’s Prison Project to formally open doors on the city’s permanent supportive housing project for justice-involved women who are transitioning back into society.

I can assure you, this 24-unit project would never have happened but for the vision and persistence of Governor Lingle.  Congratulations to you, Governor, as well as to the members of the Women’s Prison Project and the many benefactors and supporters who made this project a reality. 

Last year, we acquired the Waikiki Vista, a former university dormitory, for $37.75 million — the City’s largest affordable housing acquisition ever. It will bring over 100 affordable rental units to the market within walking distance of Waikiki.

1615 Ala Wai. The city initiated condemnation against this long-neglected building in Waikiki, and we are currently planning a senior affordable housing project with 40 to 60 units.

The Kunia Box Car Lot. Located on a prime five-acre City parcel in Royal Kunia, we are now ready to engage the community with early concept plans for a proposed 200+ unit affordable rental complex. Our vision includes a much-needed community child care center, along with a park–and–ride for easy connections to bus and rail.

In Waiawa, the city is underway with site assessments on a City-owned property near the Pearl Highlands rail station for a potential transit-oriented affordable housing development.

And the City is also in due diligence on two additional properties: one, in ʻEwa Beach, totaling 100 units, and a four-acre parcel in Iwilei with extraordinary potential for a proposed development of an iconic TOD complex, with the potential for 1,000 affordable housing units or more,  as well as commercial mixed-use retail and a park-and-ride for rail.

In addition to these many projects, our Affordable Housing Working Group is aggressively pursuing other important policy positions to further facilitate the City’s role in creating affordable housing.

For the first time, the City has proposed millions of dollars for regional infrastructure planning for the construction of affordable housing in West Oahu, Halawa and Iwilei.

Our goal is to identify infrastructure capacity, cost and schedule constraints which will allow the city and the state to forecast projects based on the scalable development of affordable housing. In other words, we want to show that when you commit to infrastructure first, that affordable housing can and will follow.

But as we stated at the outset, affordable housing is only one half of what we would describe as the City’s most Wicked problem.

Homelessness has plagued our city for years. For decades. And when we took office, we knew our approach to handling the homeless crisis needed systemic change.

Thanks to the vision and leadership of Anton Krucky, our CORE program was established, based on successful models in Denver, in Houston, and in Eugene, Oregon.

CORE’s mission is to engage and improve the quality of life … for all people on the streets … through compassion, empathy and professionalism.

Based in Chinatown, CORE today employs a team of 30 people, led by the unrelenting force of Dr. Jim Ireland, which consists of two program managers, four supervisors, seven community health workers, one physician, two nurses, 11 EMTs and three support staff.

Providing most of their care on the streets, in parks, and anywhere homeless individuals can be found, the CORE team utilizes three repurposed ambulances and three SUVs to engage those in need. This year, our goal is to hire 20 additional team members, bringing the total to 50, and to increase the CORE fleet to four ambulances and four SUVs, increasing our capabilities island wide. 

Dealing with homelessness is no small challenge for CORE, but as I have repeatedly said, a street is not a home — not for anyone, and especially not for children. Candidly, it is my strong belief that it is our moral responsibility to take this challenge head on.

Following CORE’s first full year of operation, the program helped house nearly 300 people. They treated over 1,000 people in crisis, providing a continuum of care to homeless individuals that was historically handled by HPD, as well as EMS and hospital emergency rooms.

What CORE does best is get the right resources to the right people on the street. We believe CORE is a game changer, given the existing collaboration and synergy between the City and County of Honolulu, the State of Hawaii, and our exemplary non-profit partners.

What we need now are more facilities, so that CORE can take people experiencing homelessness off the streets and provide them with medical triage and treatment and put them into permanent supportive housing.

The great unrealized opportunity in front of us is that the City can provide properties already in its inventory if the state would be willing to commit to providing the critical wraparound services that are absolutely essential. Governor Green, this is an incredible and unprecedented opportunity before us, to combine our resources and collaborate on our common goal of helping as many in our community as possible.

We believe that our Affordable Housing Working Group and the birth of the CORE program are shining examples of solving very complicated problems. 

However, we can do more!

What if we address the real issues head-on and consider organizing government to respect our people’s priorities?

What if we acknowledge that while it might have been prudent, in 1998, to disband the City’s troubled Department of Housing and Community Development, it simply no longer makes sense, given the unmet demand for affordable housing over the last 25 years?

We don’t need to conduct a survey of the people to know that affordable housing is a burning priority.

Far too many of our neighbors are voting with their feet, leaving Hawaii because they cannot afford to raise their families here. This is not a whimper, or a cry for help — this is a primal scream!

So today, I am making several significant announcements, out of respect and concern for the people of Oʻahu.

First, and this announcement comes with the blessing of Governor Green, the City is naming Denise Iseri-Matsubara, who is joining us here today, as our new Executive Director for the Office of Housing and Homelessness.

Denise is currently the Executive Director of HHFDC, where she is leaving behind a well-tooled and highly-skilled agency of more than 60 housing specialists to take ownership of this critical assignment for the City.

We are counting on Denise to align our affordable housing and homeless programs with HHFDC, as well as with the Statewide Office on Homelessness and Housing Solutions. No longer will the City and state work in silos on two major crises that affect our people and our businesses.

Denise, will you please stand and be recognized.

Next, in addition to taking over leadership of the Office of Housing, and of our Affordable Housing Working Group, I have assigned Denise one critical task in particular. 

Under the Charter of the City and County of Honolulu, the mayor, and only the mayor, may propose changes to the duties and functions of our City departments. Today, I am exercising my authority under Charter to start the study for a potential reorganization of the City's housing and homelessness programs, reflecting the people's priorities.

Denise will lead this effort and provide a report for our team by this time next year. If we need to reorganize our city government to align our City resources with the peoples’ priorities, I want to do it broadly — especially when you consider additional issues, like affordable housing funding mechanisms and 201H policies.

Talented leaders like Denise and Craig Hirai have the expertise to help us enact systemic change that serves the people, and I want to do it on my watch.

All of our plans, all of our initiatives, in the realms of housing and homelessness, are inherently dependent on the third of our so-called Wicked Problems — and the one that keeps me up at night.

The Department of Planning and Permitting.

Back in 1998, when DPP was formed by consolidating the Building Department, the Department of Land Utilization, and the Department of General Planning, the City issued nearly 14,000 permits, with a total construction value of $796 million.

Last year, DPP issued just over 14,000 building permits out of 20,000 applications filed, for a total value of over $2.5 billion.

So in 24 years, the total number of permits being approved in a calendar year has only seen a minimal increase, but the value of those permits, accounting for inflation, has gone up more than $1 billion dollars — an increase of roughly 75 percent.

Clearly, the dramatic increase in project valuation, along with changing code requirements, have extended plan review times. And there is no denying the far-reaching impacts those delays have on our economy, on construction, and on our transition to clean energy — especially in the solar industry.

That in mind, we are more determined than ever to fix an antiquated and broken permitting system from within.

We have invested two years in a top-down, master plan approach to understand how permitting and planning get done in the City and County. And the first thing we discovered is that we could capitalize on the good, smart people already working in the department.

In September, we made a significant change in leadership and leadership style by promoting Dawn Takeuchi Apuna from within to lead DPP. We also brought back Jiro Sumada as deputy director, a man with significant experience in DPP and senior leadership roles.

Dawn and Jiro understand the myriad problems the department faces, but also the myriad solutions that are available to them, including new technologies, streamlined workflow processes and, most importantly, increasing much-needed and qualified personnel.

But we cannot wait for these improvements to fall into place.

Instead, we must constantly seek innovative ideas to improve DPP’s service to the public now

To that end, DPP has formed and begun working with three task force groups  specifically focused on the following areas:

  • Permitting Process Improvements
  • Affordable Housing
  • The Solar Industry

Collaborating with industry leaders, including developers, construction companies, architects, engineers, the Building Industry Association, the General Contractors Association, plus others, DPP is engaging in meaningful dialogue on long-standing challenges to the permitting process, with a determination to find near-, mid- and long-term solutions.

These conversations will continue as DPP works to decrease the average permit time from the painful, unacceptable average of 300+ days that commercial and residential projects currently endure.

The department recently implemented the use of artificial intelligence, or a bot, to prescreen building plans for common errors that slow the review process. And that’s having an immediate, positive impact.

The bot has already reduced the average wait time for pre-screening from an average of five months to an average of five weeks, and we believe the bot can cut that time down even more.

This has given our staff more time to review plans, but it has also given DPP more time to educate the industry on how to submit plans that won’t get held up or delayed.

DPP’s new and dramatically improved website has simplified the search for permitting resources, helping design professionals obtain up-to-date information about topics like building plan formatting. That, in turn, is making for smoother, more efficient processing — and significantly shorter wait times.

As capacity is built and processes are re-designed, we know we still need to let go of unnecessary regulations and processes that simply no longer work. With that in mind, DPP recently introduced Bill 6, related to self-certification — a critical concept that the building and development industry had long requested.

If passed, Bill 6 will expand the department’s authority to allow building permit applications to be reviewed outside of the department by qualified and approved licensed professionals. The bill calls for an expanded self-certification program established through administrative rules and professional training, where licensed engineers and architects will be able to self-certify their plans for permit approval. 

Through additional legislation, DPP also intends to open up special assignment inspections, or SAIs, for residential projects. This will allow construction on certain residential properties to occur while permits are being processed, like it currently does on some commercial projects, rather than waiting until building permits have been issued.

The reality is that in DPP, the building permit process is just one of many complex functions of a very large department, covering a wide range of core services, including the regulation of short term vacation rentals, enforcement actions, affordable housing, transit-oriented development, zoning, land use, plan and project reviews, inspections, historic preservation, and many other issues affecting communities across the City and County. 

If efficient permitting is a priority of our people and businesses, then we must consider whether the Department of Planning and Permitting should continue as one department.

This is a tough call, but we must continue to explore innovative ideas and be open to the possibility of further systemic change. For that reason, I am calling on Dawn Takeuchi Apuna and Jiro Sumada to form a team to study the most efficient structure of the Department of Planning and Permitting.

We need to do a survey of the best practices in municipalities our size, looking at departments that are combined, as we are currently structured, as well as departments that completely separate planning and permitting — and I am asking them to present their findings to me by the end of the year. 

If we need to re-chart our course and look at additional systemic change, I want to do that sooner rather than later. Dawn and Jiro, thank you for taking on this additional task.

We are all genuinely excited about the future of DPP, and what a fully-functional DPP will mean for the City and County of Honolulu and our island economy.

When we took office, there was no single issue that had been more consistently and passionately raised by voters than rail and what was then a historically-troubled project. 

It was a long-standing front-page issue in the media, and there were frequent calls to abandon the project, or stop it at Middle Street, well short of downtown Honolulu — which was, for me, a non-starter.

The rail presented an immediate challenge to my leadership responsibilities and obligations as mayor. Fortunately, as the saying goes, within every challenge lies an even greater opportunity.

We were positioned to take advantage of a critical moment in time, following a failed P3 and changes in leadership at HART and at the Federal Transit Administration in Washington. So we seized that opportunity to unite the mayor’s office with HART's leadership and the HART board.

Along with Executive Director Lori Kahikina, a highly-skilled and accomplished engineer, and former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, my first appointee to the HART board — who quickly and unanimously became board chair — we created a cohesive working group with a commitment to regaining the trust and confidence of the FTA.

The key to our approach was a paradigm shift. Instead of telling the FTA what we could not do, we told the FTA what we were committed to doing, by offering a new recovery plan and also a new set of financial numbers.

We turned what had been a historically negative conversation into a positive one, and the FTA agreed.

We began collaborating weekly with key stakeholders to painstakingly scrub the project’s financial numbers, knowing we had a responsibility to deliver a fiscally constrained — but functionally sound — rail system to our residents.

Ultimately, our numbers supported a system that would run from East Kapolei to the Civic Center station in Kakaʻako, and HART submitted their recovery plan last June. 

The FTA approved that recovery plan less than four months later, setting forth a process by which the FTA and the City could move forward together to amend the FFGA and trigger the release of $744 million dollars that the FTA had long withheld from the City since 2017.

Standing here today, I am immensely proud of Lori Kahikina, Rick Keene and Colleen Hanabusa for their leadership, as well as the HART board and staff. I am also equally appreciative of the City Council for approving the 2022 Recovery Plan. 

I would be remiss if I did not also thank the FTA, and specifically FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez and her team, for allowing us to craft an innovative solution to this Wicked Problem.

So now, as we embrace the challenge embodied in building the toughest segment of rail — through the airport, down Dillingham Boulevard and through the downtown corridor — we are ready for our riders to embrace rail. Our long-awaited rail system is scheduled to commence interim operations in July, with service from East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium.

And not only that, we are on schedule to get to Middle Street by the summer of 2025 — providing ridership past Pearl Harbor and the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, two of our three largest employment centers.

As excited as we are to welcome riders aboard, our focus now is no longer just about opening the rail line. It’s about finding innovative ways to seamlessly connect the most transformative infrastructure project of this generation with the best public transportation system in the entire country.

On day one we’ll connect rail riders from West Oʻahu with their destinations further east by meeting every train in Halawa, just 20 short minutes after it leaves Kapolei, with express bus service that takes riders Downtown and to U.H. Mānoa. Our rail riders will bypass congestion on the freeway, where traveling the same distance can take an hour or more on even the best of days.

And, as we prepare to expand our transit options, the Department of Transportation Services is investing heavily in our infrastructure.

We will use existing funding resources this year to secure 39 new electric buses to pair with the 17 already on our roads, with the goal to convert our entire fleet to electric over the next fifteen years. These buses are quieter, cooler, 100% emission-free, and five times more efficient in terms of mileage output.

Whether you ride public transportation every day or not, the City is also investing in smarter, safer roadways.

In cooperation with our partners at the state, the City is now embarking on a long overdue program to upgrade all of our traffic signals island-wide to provide better traffic flow through synchronization and traffic detection.

And we’re also expanding our traffic camera network. For years, I watched as my former traffic reporters tried to track accidents or lane closures on the Leeward Coast using traffic cameras that only went so far as Honokai Hale.

Not anymore.

This year, we’ll kick off a project to install new traffic cameras and connected traffic signals from Kapolei all the way to Makaha, providing an incredible new resource to leeward residents who already spend more time in traffic than almost anyone else.

And that’s not all.

In working collaboratively with our IT department, we decided to think bigger, because the broadband infrastructure we need to bring that camera network online can serve an even greater good.

So as part of this camera network expansion program, since we will already be installing new network capabilities, we’re announcing today a plan to provide free Wi-Fi in City parks and beach parks up and down the Waianae Coast.

Broadband internet access drives everything, from education, to healthcare, to commerce. Expanding internet access for the public as part of a separate infrastructure project delivers a timely key message about our evolving vision when it comes to problem solving.

As important as our approach to transit and transportation infrastructure might be, we are operating with an even greater sense of urgency when it comes to the evolution of our approach to public safety.

As Mayor, I have felt no greater responsibility than to protect our residents from harm. I strongly believe in meaningful consequences for bad behavior, because without consequences, it has been proven bad behavior and criminal acts proliferate.

Unfortunately, there are habitual criminals who have been arrested many times — well known to HPD, well known to the Prosecutor’s office, and also well known to our Judiciary. Individually, our systems see these repeat offenders over and over and over again. But for far too long, information held by one arm of our justice system hasn’t been openly shared with others.

We need to embrace a system-level criminal justice approach, where all components of our law enforcement system share data, so they can work together and connect with each other on what works and what doesn’t work.

Prosecutor Steve Alm has been a champion for getting hard on crime, and Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald has given us unprecedented access to his office, and Circuit and District Court judges, to share concerns and understand the Judiciary’s process and role in criminal justice.

These open conversations are leading to improvements in a criminal justice system that crosses many departments, branches and agencies at the state and county levels.

Just this year, as part of the City Legislative Package, we introduced House Bill 100 and its Senate counterpart, Bill 210. These bills acknowledge that the state and counties lack a common repository for tracking data related to the criminal justice system. 

The bills would establish a data sharing working group, which would make recommendations for a statewide criminal justice repository to facilitate better cooperation among our criminal justice agencies.

Frankly, it’s simply amazing we have gone this long without sharing criminal justice data. I appreciate the Legislature hearing our bills, and I look forward to working with Speaker Scott Saiki and President Ron Kouchi on these important measures. 

Look, I have absolutely no interest in our criminal justice system overstepping the law, or infringing on the rights of our citizens. That’s not who I am at all. 

But what I am about is a unified system that has zero-tolerance for criminal acts that threaten the well-being and physical safety of law-abiding citizens.

That’s why I believe strongly in the leadership of our Chief of Police, Joe Logan, and that of our deputy and assistant chiefs — as well as the capability of our incredible police officers. But it’s no secret that we need more of them on our streets. We need to add 50 new uniformed officers before the end of June, and 120 in the next fiscal year.

With a well-staffed and well-trained police department, a prosecutor like Steve Alm, and a judicial system that believes in the strong but fair enforcement of the law, our neighborhoods will be safer — and our communities stronger — than ever before.

Law enforcement is only one element of our City’s holistic approach to public safety, and it represents only some of the challenges our City faces in the context of protecting our people.

For example, I don’t think the public is generally aware of the record-setting call volume for Emergency Medical Services last year, but the numbers are staggering — and they continue to rise post-pandemic.

Our EMS team received nearly 130,000 911 calls last year, and crews responded to more than 85,000 medical emergencies, all with a City fleet of just 21 full time EMS units. In simple math, EMS responded to an astonishing 235 calls per day.

These increases in call volumes and medical responses are putting an incredible strain on our resources, the most important of which are our colleagues: our EMTs, paramedics and dispatchers.

Recently, I had an opportunity to meet with five senior EMS personnel in my office to learn more about their concerns — valid concerns — which included the stress of their jobs, given the high call volumes, and the departure of skilled co-workers to higher paying medical jobs.

At the end of the meeting, I asked them: If conditions are this stressful, what keeps you in your job?

Each of them looked me in the eyes and said: “We love what we do.” 

That is dedication — humbling dedication — in the face of incredible adversity. 

Bottom line, the City needs to expand our EMS coverage across the island — and we’re starting with 48 new EMTs, who will be entering into the recruit academy this coming July. We will soon add two new ambulance units in the urban core, as well as a new joint Ocean Safety and EMS station in Kakaʻako.  

We also budgeted for eight new ambulances in the coming year, in addition to the four we added last year.

I extend my most heartfelt appreciation to our entire EMS team for their front-line service during these most difficult times. Mahalo.

But EMS compromises only half our Honolulu Emergency Services Department. And let me say up front that one thing is certain: Honolulu’s Ocean Safety team has the best watermen and women in the world, bar none.

As it turns out, they have some of the best surfers in the world, too.

We’re thrilled to be joined today by Ocean Safety lifeguard, and the winner of the highly-prestigious 2023 Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, Luke Shepardson.

You know, the only thing more awe-inspiring than what Luke accomplished in 50-foot surf at The Eddie might be his willingness to rush into those same waves to rescue those whose lives are in danger. But like with EMS, providing a steady and watchful eye on our beaches has pushed our lifeguards beyond their resource capacity.

Several years ago, the City expanded Ocean Safety’s response hours for emergencies that arise along our shores from dawn to dusk. With more than 40 towers on 227 miles of coastline, and given their immense responsibility to keep beachgoers safe, our ocean safety officers need more staff and better facilities.

In our budget this year, we are committing to increasing the number of lifeguards we have across our island.

But it’s also time to take a deeper look and seriously consider whether EMS and Ocean Safety would be better served as independent first responder departments.

We’ve said it twice already this morning: if the well-reasoned solution to a long-standing problem involves the reorganizing of our government to better reflect the priorities of our people, that’s a challenge we will face head on.

Today, I am announcing the creation of a task force between EMS and Ocean Safety to study whether the people of the City and County of Honolulu, and visitors to Oʻahu, would be better and more efficiently served by having separate departments for Emergency Medical Services and Ocean Safety. 

We need to analyze the pros and cons, best practices around the world, and the potential fiscal implications of any such reorganization — and we will start to do it immediately.

Like our other first responder agencies, the Honolulu Fire Department is strong today because of its excellent leadership, and our dedicated and brave firefighters — but there are looming challenges ahead.  

While every new residential high-rise in our urban core may help reduce our housing shortage, it makes the job of our firefighters more difficult — and pushes their limits even more. My goal as mayor is to continue providing the highest level of support to the high-performing operations of our first responders and to work closely with their leadership to improve employee morale and strengthen these departments in every way possible, to ensure that communities all across the City and County of Honolulu are deservedly safe from harm.

Our communities also deserve to feel heard, especially when it comes to persistent issues plaguing City government for years. So, to our residents on the West Side, let me say that you have been heard clearly on one topic in particular.

Under my watch, the site of the next landfill for the City and County of Honolulu will not be on the Waianae Coast. Let me repeat that: not on the Waianae Coast.

And, while we’re at it: to Ernie Lau and the hard-working men and women at the Board of Water Supply, if I have it my way, the site of our next landfill won’t be over our aquifer, either.

That doesn’t mean that this will be easy, and make no mistake, our options are extremely limited. But we have gone back to the drawing board, asking for additional time to identify a new site.

Problems like this one, with requirements that seem to change at every step, sometimes demand execution as learning in search of a solution. But while that process plays out, we’re still evolving every step of our waste reduction strategy.

We received a record-low 215,000 tons of waste at Waimanalo Gulch last year, and ENV’s new Ash Recycling Project — which will be operational well before we open a new landfill — will slash that number even more dramatically, by recycling as much as 60% of the ash that would have otherwise gone to Waimanalo Gulch.

ENV will also be phasing in the implementation of curbside collection and composting of residential food waste. Quite honestly, this is a smart project that should have happened years ago.

All across Oʻahu, we’re tackling big problems, Wicked problems, with our environmental infrastructure.

Last June, we broke ground on Phase 1 of the Secondary Upgrade Project at the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. 

This phase, valued at roughly $450 million dollars, is part of a multi-year, $2.2 billion consent decree project to upgrade the entire plant by 2035.

Later this month, ENV will open a brand-new Refuse and Recycling Convenience Center in Kapolei, the first new convenience center to be built on Oʻahu in decades.

And all across the island, we’re upgrading our storm water systems, taking better care of our streams, and working on monumental flood mitigation projects for the Ala Wai watershed in Urban Honolulu and the Wailele Stream in Lāʻie.

This is about modernizing our infrastructure and protecting our island communities from harm, from environmental danger, and from climate change.

Through our Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency, we are driving execution on climate action and preparedness, a massive undertaking for us as island dwellers.

Last year, we secured more than $3 million in federal grants to address climate hazards ranging from sea level rise and flooding to increasing temperatures and heat. Those funds, along with years of community and stakeholder engagement, have set the stage for our release, later this summer, of the City’s first-ever climate adaptation strategy — a strategy we’re calling “Climate Ready O‘ahu.”

With the passage of Bills 41 and 42 by the City Council, we are intensifying our shoreline management efforts.

Last year, we collaborated with the industry on important cost-saving opportunities through building energy and water use tracking, which Oahu’s biggest buildings will begin doing this June.

We are also working with industry and the Council to update our energy conservation codes to balance long-term affordability with energy savings for new construction.

And to increase the City's focus on the electrification of our transportation fleet, I am assigning to CCSR the important responsibility, of tracking that transition across departments.

I am also asking CCSR to take the lead in the reduction of our overall electrical usage, with near-, mid- and long-term plans for the City's transition to clean fuel.

In my mind, centralizing the City's commitment to climate action and adaptation under CCSR simply makes sense. 

In addition to the enormous challenge of solving our Wicked Problems, the City also has other critical needs.

We saw a great need and opportunity in the area of early childhood education. Consequently, this past year, with the support of the Hawaii Community Foundation, the City and County of Honolulu created a dedicated Early Childhood Coordinator position — because we strongly believe that all children should have equal access to high-quality early childhood opportunities.

And to serve in that role, we were very fortunate to find someone with the knowledge and experience that local families will be able to count on. Ted Burke brings to the City a 30-year career in in this area.

He knows how to level the playing field when it comes to equitable access to early childhood opportunities, and he knows how to engage families and communities as partners for innovation. But Ted knows, and we know, that one person is not enough.

That’s why we’re announcing today the City’s plan to establish an Office of Early Childhood Development, to work with the public and private sectors to ensure our communities have the needed policies, funding and resources to make a difference for our keiki.

We know that there is considerable work to do, and we look forward to collaborating with another extraordinary champion for early childhood education: Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke.

Sylvia, we’re here to commit to being an exceptional partner with the Green and Luke administration, as well as with your Ready Keiki Task Force, to help spark the long-overdue development of an early childhood education system that will last for generations.

Our embrace of innovation in the search for solutions that will leave a lasting impact extends to all corners of Oʻahu.

There was no blueprint for how to deal with the challenges we faced during the COVID era, but we came out of it with a model, if you will, on how to better manage the incredible natural resources on our island.

We saw with our own eyes the regeneration of our parks, in places like Hanauma Bay, where fewer visitors had given nature a chance to take hold once more. Consequently, we refuse to go back to business as usual.

That’s why our Department of Parks and Recreation has introduced a bill to the City Council that aims to regulate commercial activity in all of our parks, all across the island, to make sure our local families are not being subordinated or relegated in favor of the almighty dollar.

DPR has already worked with a wide array of stakeholders and community partners to identify fair and equitable measures, and our challenge now is to implement those lessons on an island-wide basis. We look forward to working with the Council to enact a law that keeps our parks in the hands of our residents. 

Our future successes, our ability to enact systemic change across the City and County, are critically dependent in two very specific areas.

In last year’s State of the City address I said that our government’s long-standing staffing shortages compromised the effectiveness of our leadership team. Of even greater concern was that those personnel shortages threatened to prevent us from optimizing our ability to deliver core city services.

Knowing full well the enormity of that challenge, our departments of Human Resources and Budget and Fiscal Services took action.

I’m proud to say that the City anticipates being able to show positive employee growth, beginning in the current fiscal year, for the first time in more than five years.

DHR has spearheaded our collaboration with the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative to bring innovation to the City’s recruitment and hiring practices. In fact, so far, in this fiscal year, we have already hired almost the same number of people as we did in all of last year, and our year-to-date monthly hires are up 43%.

We still have more ground to make up. The City absolutely needs to be competitive with the private sector when it comes to the hiring of our workforce. But in the past six months, we’ve decreased the average time it takes to hire new employees by 25% — and that’s progress in the right direction. 

But no matter how much momentum we gain when it comes to hiring, or how much we are able to grow our workforce, in order to execute on our priorities, that workforce needs to be sufficiently — yet responsibly — funded.

Our $4.5 billion budget proposal — $3.4 billion in operating, and $1.1 billion in capital improvements — represents our financial commitment to improving the quality of life for local residents through sound decision making and responsible, principled spending.

Our operating budget reflects a roughly $200 million increase from last year, about half of which will be spent on pay increases and fringe benefits consistent with collective bargaining settlements.

We believe our budget will continue to drive our commitment to core City services, allowing us to invest in our communities like never before — and we want to start in your neighborhood.

In fact, we want to start in all of your neighborhoods.

Earlier this month, we proposed to the City Council a one-time tax credit of $300 for 152,000 homeowners on O’ahu. If you own and occupy your home, that credit, for the upcoming tax year, amounts to an $86,000 addition to the current homeowner’s exemption of $100,000.

All told, we’ve set aside $45.5 million for immediate tax relief — money to help you and your families offset the cost of living, and we’re asking the City Council to work with us to make that proposed relief a reality.

As we close this afternoon, it is my sincere wish that today has helped all of you better understand our commitment to that critical element which ties all of our priorities, all of our policies, all of our initiatives and all of our efforts together: Hope.

“Once you choose hope, anything is possible.”

I want to sincerely thank all of the members of our Cabinet, and all of the men and women who work for the City and County, for their hard work, and leadership — and for the invaluable caring contributions you make each and every day.

As a team, we are committed to restoring trust in city government through our actions and positive results, because through the restoration of trust comes the reclaiming of hope.

If being mayor has taught me anything, it has been how to embrace the joy of the struggle, to stand tall in the face of our Wicked Problems and to be confident we will prevail.

As someone once said to me, and it has proven to be so apropos for this challenge of a lifetime: “The days are long, and the years are short.”

The challenges that we’re up against are very real and will require time to remedy.

But I have no doubt that the team that we have in place, and the commitment to solving tough problems that we all share together, will leave a lasting impact on the City and County of Honolulu — for generations to come.

Mahalo to all of you in the auditorium today, and to those of you watching across the island, I hope to see you at our town halls starting next month.  

God bless you all, and aloha.

---30---

SA Editorial: Mayor unpacks ambitious agenda

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi speaks about 'wicked problems' at his third state-of-the-city address 

Honolulu Mayor Vows ‘Systemic Change’ In Beleaguered Department

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