Back in 2005, before Charmaine Tavares was elected mayor of Maui County, Larry Helm, commander of Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans, approached Mayor Alan Arakawa for assistance with installing a water meter at the site for a new veterans’ center.
At the time, no one could foresee the struggles the veterans would face in attempting to build a much-needed center. The veterans were moving forward successfully on all the details with Maui County planners, politicians and local contractors. No one thought that the construction of a well-planned, pre-fabricated, 3,000-foot building would end up being finished many years and hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget.
It would also have been hard to foresee in 2005 or 2006 that 55 Molokai veterans would die before seeing the center completed. “This is why I am passionate about this,” said Helm. “When I think about our vets … this (process) is demeaning to them. This center honors them.”
Molokai Ranch had given the local veterans a plot of land in Kaunakakai along the wharf road for construction of this center. Molokai Ranch had originally offered to give the veterans land in Holumua but that parcel was too large and too remote.
Originally, when he was first mayor, Arakawa wanted to give the veterans the water meter for $1. Maui County rules did not allow the transaction, so instead, the county gave the veterans a $5,000 grant toward this project. The veterans chipped in another $1,500 and a water meter was installed.
But this was only the beginning of a long and complicated path of broken promises, unnecessary bureaucratic delays and a string of legal maneuvers that turned the Molokai veterans’ group into pawns in a political game waged by the Maui County Mayor’s Office.
The problems began after Tavares was elected mayor of Maui County and Linda Lingle was re-elected governor of Hawaii.
During Lingle’s bid for re-election, she made a promise to help the veterans with $2.8 million in aid to build the center. She even stated this in a letter that now hangs on the wall of “The Bunker,” the temporary, 200 square-foot shack in Kaunakakai that now serves as the veterans’ center.
Once elected, the veterans could not even get Lingle to return their calls, said Helm. The bill authorizing the state grant for the veterans’ center was killed in the state senate. Before the House version was officially put down, Helm said he received a heads up call from Molokai Rep. Mele Carroll.
In 2008, a more modest $250,000 grant-in-aid passed through the state legislature. With a smaller budget, the veterans downsized the project by seeking donated labor and other cost-saving measures. The veterans had found a prefabricated building — pre-constructed on the Big Island — that could be purchased for under $100,000. Another $150,000 would cover the transportation and labor costs.
“After talking to county officials, everyone was ‘hip hip hooray,’” said Helm.
Then the troubles began.
Molokai Planning Commission Staff Planner Nancy McPherson told the veterans they would only need a Special Management Area minor permit to begin construction because the cost of the structure was under $112,000.
After three public hearings and around 10 other subsequent meetings, everything was a go. Then zoning issues came up that had never been raised before. The Maui County Planning Department told the veterans that a veterans’ center was not defined as an acceptable use within an interim zone. Then, over a year later, after the veterans had spent money on surveying the land for a possible rezoning, the county changed the definition of acceptable use within an interim zone.
Another delay was caused when the county asked for an unnecessary environmental impact exemption from the Department of Defense. By 2010 the zoning issue had been resolved and everyone involved was prepared to sign off on a building permit, except the director of the Maui County Department of Water Supply Jeff Eng.
The water department had initially written a letter to the county Planning Department stating that the site had an eight-inch water main service. A year later the DWS revised its assessment to say the line is only four inches and not adequate for fire protection.
Based on the initial information, the Maui County Fire Department approved the project. After the contradictory statements for the DWS, the fire department tested the line. Using a 4.5-inch outlet and the fire hydrant closest to the building site, the fire department determined that 1,630 gallons per minute were available, exceeding the 1,250 GPM requirement. The DWS came up with different results, using insurance standards to test the line.
Today, the requirements for determining fire protection are now under the authority of the County Fire Department because of this issue. The current Maui County administration issued a building permit with the existing four-inch line.
Another side effect of this delay may have been the loss of Maui County Planning Director Jeff Hunt and Molokai Staff Planner Michael Torgersen. Both recommended, in writing, that the county issue the building permit to the vets. Helm believes both men resigned as Maui County employees as a direct result of this conflict with the mayor’s office.
Helm also believes Tavares lost her bid at re-election as a direct result of the problems she created for the Molokai veterans.
Up until 2010 Helm and the MVCV continued to try to work through the system to get their building permit. Then they received threats from Mayor Tavares along with Roy Silva and Mahina Martin who worked under Tavares.
The events of July 1, 2010 spurred the veterans’ decision to pursue legal action. A group of 20 MVCV veterans planned a protest in front of the county building in Kahului. According to Helm, Martin and Silva told them they would never receive a building permit if they did not drop the protest. This conversation was tape recorded.
At that time, Martin and Silva said a permit would be coming within two weeks because the authority for approving fire protection would soon be shifted to the County Fire Department. What these two failed to mention was that a water subcommittee from the Maui County Council had considered and rejected this proposal seven times and was not prepared to change the authority.
By the time Mike Victorino and the rest of the water subcommittee rejected the change in authority for an eighth time, the veterans had had enough. “That’s when I felt they (Maui County) had another agenda,” said Helm.
Helm believes the “agenda,” or plan from the county, involved a state harbor project. Evidence points to Maui County officials withholding the building permit as a way to get local authorities to approve the Department of Land and Natural Resource’s Kaunakakai Harbor Improvement project. The proposal includes a 12-inch water main. By claiming that the county and state could help the veterans if the project was approved, county officials were attempting to influence the Molokai Planning Commission to look favorably upon this project. The MoPC had previously criticized the project in public and had considered rejecting it.
In effect, the county held the veterans hostage in order to get support for the DLNR project, Helm said.
A suit was filed in U.S. District Court that named Tavares, Martin and Silva personally liable for the delays and the trauma caused to Helm and other veterans as a result of these delays.
As with most cases, this one never went to trial. Although Federal Magistrate Judge Richard Puglisi deemed several claims worthy of going forward to trial, the attorneys involved convinced the veterans to sign a settlement agreement. The settlement never required Maui County officials to make any admission of wrongdoing.
“With all the back and forth I wish I didn’t settle and went to trial,” said Helm. “We had the leverage the whole time. It is one of my regrets but I’m not going to look back, I’m looking forward.”
Helm believes the veterans were victims of “legal bullying” from the attorneys on both sides.
“The deal went sour and I’m not happy,” said Helm. “The goal was to get the center done but what about accountability?” he asked.
As part of the agreement, Maui County issued another $200,000 grant to cover additional expenses. Mayor Arakawa also agreed to make a general public apology for the county’s misdeeds when the grand opening is held.
By accepting the grant, the veterans also agreed to the terms, including allowing the county to manage the money. The veterans had to follow the “prevailing wages law,” which meant contractors needed to be paid $60 per hour instead of $23 an hour. The county, along with the State of Hawaii, also required the vets to only use labor from their “vendor’s list.”
Even still, the Molokai vets have found ways to cut expenses to make the project work. A roof that would have cost $10,000 to $15,000 was donated and will cost the veterans $200. A $10,000 drywall job was donated for $900, said Helm.
After all this drama, Helm believes anywhere from $500,000 to $700,000 was wasted on this project when you take into consideration legal expenses and the time spent by community members. Not considering legal expenses, the veterans’ center will end up costing around $600,000.
With no further delays, Helm thinks the veterans’ center could hold a ribbon cutting ceremony before Election Day in November. But given the complications already met on this project, it might not open until January 2013.