Mayor Peter Carlisle: 'The Fiscal House Is In Order'

Nathan Eagle/Honolulu Civil Beat

Mayor Peter Carlisle will be leaving Honolulu Hale in January when a new mayor takes over.

He lost his bid for re-election in August, edged out of a three-way primary by opponents Ben Cayetano and Kirk Caldwell.

We sat down with him last week to get his thoughts on the last two years — he was elected in 2010 when former mayor Mufi Hannemann resigned to run for governor — and what he’ll do for the next two months.

Civil Beat: What do you have planned for the next couple of months?

Peter Carlisle: Continue what’s already been started. Do the best we can to solidify support for the rail system. And pretty much business as usual with the understanding though that people are now ... many of them are looking for work. Either because they don’t have confidence they they would be hired by the next person or they may not want to work for the particular next person.

CB: Let’s talk about some specific things.

PC: Actually what’s coming up in the next couple months is going to be easy. It’s the holiday season. So lots of parades, lots of city lights, lots of Alvin and the Chipmunks over the megaphone outside my room, outside of my working office.

CB: Do you like Alvin and the Chipmunks?

PC: Not if I hear it repeatedly, over and over and over again. Do I know that its great for the kids and they love it to death and it adds to the festivities and the festive spirit? I think, yeah, that’s completely true. But again if you hear it four or five times every hour it becomes less than joyous for me.

CB: So you’ve been in office for a couple of years, what do you think you’ve accomplished? When you look back on those couple years what are the things you feel really good about?

PC: The fiscal house is in order. And I think the sort of wisdom about that is if it's good times then there’s money that’s going around ... Unfortunately people tend to be less vigilant then they should be in dealing with the long-term picture. So it's easy to be somebody who’s in the mayor’s office during flush financial times whereas sort of like the real test is when they’re very difficult economic times can you do the things that you need to do to make sure that the city remains fiscally sound and the future is going in the right direction in terms of retirement benefits, health care and efficiency in government.

CB: How would you describe your fiscal legacy, being as specific as you can?

PC: Tremendous bond ratings. Stable outlook. Increased reserves. Did not raise property taxes. ... The trendings are correct. And that’s exactly what you want to see in terms of reserves. That’s why we maintained the bond rating, and this was during a time when many jurisdictions on the mainland were filing for bankruptcy and some evaporated completely. Places that were communities are no more because they couldn’t afford to keep themselves that way. So I think the fact that reserves are going in the right direction, we’ve now got some rainy day savings fund is important, and that we now have a much more promising outlook for the kind of debt service we’re going to have because of our excellent bond ratings.

CB: So what worries you now that you’re leaving?

PC: Somebody who becomes fiscally irresponsible. That’s exactly what I’d be afraid of. Start spending money on unnecessary projects. Start caving in to the people who are constantly complaining about needing money and people who would then make unsound decisions about how we spend our money.

CB: Like who would that be? Who’s constantly complaining that they’re needing money?

PC: Everybody. The mayor’s office is the place where people come and ask for money every day. Whether it’s for more bus service, whether it’s for more nonprofit organizations, whether it’s for more park beautification, whether it’s for purchasing properties, all of those things come our way. Unless you do not watch the bottom line in terms of dollars you’re going to be in trouble in the long run.

CB: So how do you prioritize some of those things? Because some of those things are actually needed or wanted.

PC: There’s so many needs, so you’re right, it is a question of prioritization. So you determine what needs to be done for the absolute core services which would include things like public safety ... infrastructure ... transportation ... we’ve had a couple lessons in the past day about why we need good infrastructure considering what happened out on the freeway the other day. (Referring to an accident that compromised a support structure.) So all of those things are critical and the only way we’re ever going to get ourselves in the position where we’ll have these things at the level of maintenance that we want is to spend money on maintenance. Which sounds rather simple but it’s not something that governments do often.

A good example of that is our roadways. A third of our roadways have been brought up to speed. Within the next five years if we continue at the speed we’re going at there will be essentially a road system that’s up to par and will have been accomplished in two years. ... But if we can do that in two years and we can continue it, then in five years we’ll be at something that has a reasonable level of maintenance.

CB: I’d like to talk about this affordable housing sale, the sale of the affordable housing complexes.

PC: A complete and unequivocal no-brainer. We got a fantastic deal on that. The only thing that wasn’t fantastic about it was the delay in getting it done which cost us about $1,000 a day. I have no idea why it was deferred for a week, and at the time they made that decision — I think it was Ann Kobayashi and Ernie Martin — had they known how much that week would cost. And then how can they justify that? I’d like to know the answer to that because I’ve never been given a satisfactory answer.

CB: So what did you think of their criticisms? Even as they approved this a lot of them said they had reservations.

PC: It struck me as making absolutely no sense whatsoever considering the benefits we received from it. And it also struck me that Romy Cachola and Tom Berg, who were the two people that voted against it, really need to go back to remedial mathematics because every year we were losing $7 million. Every year. The people who were living there were living in worse and worse conditions and it continued to deteriorate. And there was no amount of money that the city could afford to fix all of that. We got an absolutely remarkably successful result from some of the very best people locally and nationally who are committed to affordable housing who will give these people better living conditions. How people have sensible reservations about that is beyond my comprehension.

CB: What sticks out most in your mind as something that flabbergasted you when you took office, that you never thought you’d be dealing with?

PC: Keaau Beach Park. Keaau Beach Park in terms of the enormity of it. You couldn’t go out there and go down these miles and miles of roads of this beautiful beach area and see the complete absolute destruction of that area. It was essentially a bunch of hoarding homeless people who just built layers and layers of filth to live on and left it there. Making a completely malodor horrible to look at and complete lack of sanitation. Miles of pristine shoreline turned into something you wouldn’t the landfill look like.

CB: How long was it there til you came in?

PC: Ten, 12 years. At least.

CB: Why was that one of the unexpected challenges then?

PC: When we saw it, I couldn’t believe that something hadn’t been started earlier. But once we got it cleaned up, I didn’t think it was a challenge, I think it was a huge success story. Was I ever expecting there to be something that looked like that other than if people were living in a landfill or on it? I hadn’t seen anything like that.

CB: So where did all those people go?

PC: You know I think that some of them went and actually got the help that they needed. (Others went to shelters, others left Honolulu, others moved around to different locations). I don’t see anyplace on the island now that looks like that did. There’s nothing on the island anymore that looks like that. And to my understanding the people on the Waianae Coast are very happy that we reclaimed this for them.

CB: So what do you see as the challenges facing the new mayor?

PC: You know I got to tell you I think things are poised for really a very very good few years in front of us. The tourism industry is looking great, a lot of work has been done to attract new visitor industry participants. We’ve got a lot of efforts through the airlines not only here but abroad to get new flights to Honolulu. We increased the load, I think that’s a mega plus. We’ve done a tremendous job of renovating Waikiki, I think APEC was a big shot in the arm because we went out of our way to clean up Waikiki and make it more friendly. You take a look at Beach Walk and some of the things that you’ve got there, it’s extremely impressive. We’ve still got a sidewalk renovation ongoing, now we’re working on the infrastructure. I think all those things are extremely valuable. And there’s been an absolute unequivocal harmony of working with the visitor industry, that’s something that I think is a major (success).

Editor's Note: Civil Beat staff involved in this interview include Patti Epler, Sara Lin, Nick Grube and Nathan Eagle.

DISCUSSION: Share your thoughts about the job Peter Carlisle has done as mayor. What do you think about the points he's making here?

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