Preserve Kuleana Land property tax exemptions

February 2012 KA WAI OLA COLUMN

`Ano`ai kakou… After four years of countless meetings with City officials and testifying before an endless parade of committees, Kuleana Lands finally became exempt from real property taxes on Oahu in 2007 and it is now known as Revised Ordinances of Honolulu Section 8-10.32 Exemption—Kuleana land.

Native Hawaiian families who had been caring for their Kuleana lands for generations are now protected from sky-rocketing property taxes because of luxury resorts and shopping malls being built around them. If the exemption didn’t pass when it did, more Kuleana lands would have fallen out of Hawaiian hands.

Since most of the Kuleana lands were carved up, taken away or abandoned, the impact on tax revenues was predicted to be extremely minimal so OHA argued that there should be no reason why the ordinance shouldn’t pass. This has in fact been proven to be the case.

According to the Star-Advertiser (Nov. 14, 2011) there were 37 Kuleana Land parcels on Oahu receiving a property tax exemption for Fiscal Year 2011-2012, which cost the city $91,000 in taxes. Given its tragic history, I believe this is a very small price for the City to pay in order to preserve the last of Oahu’s Kuleana Lands.

Establishing the property tax exemption for Kuleana Lands on all islands has been the most important accomplishments for us in 10-years. We must do everything that we can to protect against taking away this right that should have been grandfathered into the law in 1898 and again in 1959.

The City & County of Honolulu also sent a strong message to the Native Hawaiian community that it was knowledgeable of Hawaiian history and was sympathetic and supportive of Hawaiian causes. The City helped to put an end to the injustices done to the caretakers of Oahu Kuleana lands over the past 150-years.

This truly momentous piece of legislation eventually paved the way for the three neighbor island counties to establish similar property tax exemptions for their Kuleana Lands. It was a relief to finally know that the very last of the Kuleana Lands that were able to survive would be protected and kept in Hawaiian hands. Or so I thought…

On November 22, 2011, the Star-Advertiser reported that the Real Property Tax Advisory Commission (created by the City Council and headed by Lowell Kalapa – the only person to testify against the property tax exemptions for Kuleana Lands) is recommending that the City & County of Honolulu eliminate property tax exemptions for about 150,000 Oahu homeowners, including the blind, elderly and disabled. It is also proposing that the exemptions for charitable organizations, credit unions, schools, churches and other groups be abolished or significantly reduced. Their goal is to provide tax relief that is more connected to a landowner’s ability to pay rather than giving exemptions based on a particular category.

The biggest danger is that only three of the current City Councilmembers were in office in 2007 (Ann Kobayashi, Nestor Garcia, and Romy Cachola). Most of the City Council is unaware of the history of Kuleana Lands and will have to be briefed all over again. By the time this article is published, I will have testified before the City Council on behalf of Kuleana Land owners. It should be noted that while the State negotiates with OHA for unpaid ceded revenues, the City, which is in possession of ceded lands as well, has NOT paid a dime to Hawaiians for the lands that they have in their inventory.

Thankfully, the Star-Advertiser (November 14, 2011) also reported that since five of the nine Council seats are up for election this year, there is only a slim chance that the Real Property Tax Advisory Commission’s controversial proposals will pass.

Let us make absolutely sure that this is the case.  Please contact your City Councilmember and let them know that property tax exemptions for Kuleana Lands must be preserved.