1. What should be the County Council’s priorities in addressing the economic impacts of COVID-19?
In my opinion, the most important way to stabilize our economy and provide a foundation for it to come back is to prioritize health and safety. As we can see with states and cities beginning to shut down again on the mainland due to rising case counts, the only way that we’ll have any economy is to keep our COVID-19 numbers low. Most indicators show that we have somewhere around six months before we can expect viable therapeutics and a vaccine. There is no easy path through these next six nightmarish months but we need to take every measure we can to keep roofs over people’s heads, food in their refrigerator, and to keep as many small businesses alive as possible. To do that, I fully support the County’s utilization of federal stimulus moneys to provide small business grants as well as non profit grants for those organizations that can ramp up employment to help fill needed gaps such as mental health services and agricultural infrastructure. From a budgetary perspective, it’s important to continue to prioritize keeping as much of our county expenditures local as possible—which means cutting any money that flows off island first, while prioritizing social service support programs and grants in aid. Lastly, going forward into the next budget cycle, I will continue to urge and support the county taking advantage of low interest bonds or municipal liquidity facilities to invest in infrastructure—which is a strong form of local stimulus.
2. What is your vision for a thriving agricultural economic sector on Kauai?
A thriving agriculture sector on Kaua’i would consist of both small and large farms. To even begin to reverse the decline in farming on Kaua’i, we need to reduce development pressure on ag land. As long as agricultural lots are competing on the luxury housing market, very few new farmers will be able to have either the access to capital or the revenue necessary to pay off a mortgage. Reducing development pressure of agricultural land has to remain a key priority of the County’s, and that means ensuring that we are shifting new housing development to within and around our existing town cores to reduce demand for housing on agricultural lots, ensuring that homes built on agricultural land are actually producing crops, and not increasing density through ADU allowances (which increase the value of land). It’s also vital to reduce the barriers to entry for farmers by changing our zoning code to allow for limited retail operations on agricultural land to allow for farm stands.
3. What role do you feel the visitor industry should play in Kauai’s economy?
There is no doubt that the visitor industry is, and likely always will be, a fundamental part of Kaua’i’s economy. A well-functioning visitor industry can help pay for the preservation of natural resources, it can provide countless ways for local entrepreneurs to start businesses, and by providing a market for locally made/grown goods, it can support industries outside of the visitor industry like agriculture and local manufacturing. However, as outlined in our Kaua’i Tourism Strategic Plan, we are over capacity for tourists and this has detrimental impacts on our roads, on our well-being, on our local housing market, and even on our economy. We simultaneously have a dire housing crisis on Kaua’i and 1 in 8 homes being utilized as a vacation rental. That is unacceptable, as reduced supply increases the cost of housing for local residents and hollows out the character of neighborhoods. Another result of overtourism is that as our visitor numbers go up beyond our saturation point, per-visitor spending goes down at least partially due to the fact that visitors are less satisfied when they’re here and so we’re also attracting visitors who are less likely to spend lots of money. Overtourism also sucks up all of the oxygen and makes it harder for us to take steps necessary for diversification (outlined more in the link below). Lastly, as we can see at the moment, too much dependence on tourism puts our local economy entirely at the mercy of the mainland economy. Part of the reason that it’s going to take us so long to dig out of this economic recession is because we have so little economic diversification to keep us moving. Going forward, we certainly need to bring our visitor numbers back up significantly as soon as it is safe to do so, but we need to follow the strategies of our Kaua’i Tourism Strategic Plan to ensure that we don’t again expand beyond our capacity. In short, this means increasing the cost of visiting the island through measures such as paid parking for tourists in our beach parks, as well as continued regulation of the Vacation Rental industry in an effort to reduce the number of TVRs on island, as well as coordination with the State NOT to expand the Lihu’e airport or allow for additional flights. For more of my thoughts on tourism: https://www.civilbeat.org/2016/10/luke-evslin-time-to-put-the-brakes-on-tourism/
4. If elected to the Council, how would you engage with the business community prior to your decision-making?
In my first term in office, I hope that I have shown that I prioritize community engagement on all issues. I try to communicate regularly on important policies via Facebook and a regular email blast, I make an effort to always respond to all questions and concerns via FB or email, and I attend as many community events as my schedule permits. So far, for all housing and tax policies that I’ve thought the business community would be interested in weighing in on, I have reached out directly to the Chamber of Commerce for input and have always made myself available to come to Chamber meetings to discuss policy.
5. How would you help ensure that working middle class residents can afford to buy or rent a home in Kaua’i?
We have three simultaneous housing crises on Kaua’i that are contributing to the astronomically high cost of housing– and all three need to be addressed separately. Not enough housing is getting built, too many houses are vacant or being used as TVRs, and too many residents don’t have high enough incomes to pay for housing. All three require separate strategies: 1) We aren’t building enough new homes. Between 1960 and 2010, Kaua’i added an average of 600 new homes per year. From 2010 until now, that number has been closer to 150. With the supply of new homes not keeping pace with population growth—most of which is from babies being born here—the market price of housing has skyrocketed over the last decade, far outpacing any growth in wages. This rapid appreciation in the value of existing homes as well as a lack of rental supply drives up the cost of rent and keeps local buyers from being able to afford a home. To change course, we need to add many, many new homes—but we need to ensure that they’re being built within and around existing job centers so that we’re not exacerbating traffic, increasing the cost of infrastructure, or increasing carbon emissions. For me, I think that ARUs and ADUs are the low-hanging fruit of our housing crisis. As we have an aging population, many people have extra room in their existing home or yard for a tenant or even for their children, and we need to make it as easy and cheap as possible for them to convert their home to a duplex or build a small unit in their backyard. I’ve co-introduced a number of bills along these lines, such as the ARU incentive package which eliminates up to $20k in permitting/building fees for affordable ARUS, and the tiny house bill which defines tiny homes and loosens the building code for them, and the bill to eliminate minimum lot sizes for multifamily homes. The current housing ordinance under deliberation would also be a step in the right direction along these lines. 2) We also need to increase the supply of housing by creating more disincentives for vacant homes and vacation rentals— which we can primarily do through higher property taxes for those housing types. Vacation rental operations need to cover the full cost of infrastructure expenses from the tourists they host and they should also pay a premium for taking a home off of the housing market. Vacant homes should pay higher property taxes both as a premium for taking a home off the housing market and also to ensure that they’re covering the full cost of infrastructure and services to their house—because they are not contributing to other forms of tax revenue like state income taxes, excise taxes, gas taxes, etc. 3) We need to increase the amount of subsidized housing on Kaua’i so that those making 80% and below of the Area Median Income can afford to live on Kaua’i in a stable home-environment. The housing development fund which the County Housing Agency utilizes to build subsidized housing not only is a vital source of reduced cost of housing for low-income residents, but it’s also an incredible economic stimulus for Kaua’i—because each dollar the county puts forward gets multiplied by up to 10x in State and Federal funds bringing more money into our local economy through construction jobs. More of my thoughts on reducing the cost of housing here: https://email@example.com/last-week-the-garden-island-newspaper-published-an-op-ed-i-wrote-in-support-of-most-of-the-policies-e56c905afb5 and https://firstname.lastname@example.org/kauai-s-old-homes-have-increased-in-value-by-345-since-1984-that-needs-to-end-afdbcfb360af
6. How would you effectively manage budget and operations compared to the past?
As we face an inevitable decline in revenue due to COVID-19, it’s important for us to prioritize local expenditures (like grants in aid, affordable housing construction, infrastructure, and county salaries) while doing all that we can NOT to significantly contract the budget—as that will prolong the depth and length of the recession. That said, we’re required by law to maintain a balanced budget—so some cuts are inevitable. Like this year, I think it’s important to cut travel, training, consultant fees, and new equipment purchases first. In the long run, it’s my hope that we will move to more of a performance based budget system where we allocate money based on how well a department is doing at measurable outcomes related to increasing the public good. Unlike the private sector where you can determine how well an organization is doing based on their profit margin, in the public sector we need to have a host of measurable outcomes related to public value to help guide effective decision making. One of my surprises in my first term was realizing how much we do not measure—so it often feels like we’re budgeting blind and also not able to hold department heads accountable to certain objectives. That is one area where we need consistent improvement as a county.
7. How can Kaua’i maintain its rural character while continuing to accommodate a growing population and visitor counts? How do your ideas fit with the current General Plan?
To accommodate a growing population and maintain our rural character we have to follow the General Plan—as this is very literally one of the guiding principles of the plan. As outlined in the General Plan, we are currently developing most of our homes on low density residential land and agricultural land far from town centers. This consumes ag land, makes it harder for people to farm, increases traffic, increases infrastructure costs, increases carbon emissions, increases the amount of money that people have to spend on transportation as they’re forced to live far from work, and a host of other negative outcomes. To maintain our rural atmosphere, we need to redirect our new housing development into and around our town cores in order to preserve our open space and agricultural land. That means removing barriers to construction within our towns, making it easier for people to build ADUs/ARUs, expanding sewer, incentivizing more mixed use housing, regulate the form of development rather than the use through form based codes, and even some incremental increases in density where necessary—such as the Lihu’e Town Core. Almost every bill that I introduced last year fit into one of these boxes and nearly all of them came directly from policy’s outlined in the General Plan. More of my thoughts on how to preserve our rural nature here: https://www.civilbeat.org/2016/05/luke-evslin-a-new-approach-to-zoning-could-save-kauais-character/ Thoughts on how to manage growth here: https://www.civilbeat.org/2016/09/luke-evslin-managing-growth-isnt-as-simple-as-it-seems/ That said—we’re likely facing negative population growth at some point in the near future, which will present another massive problem for us. More of my thoughts on that here: https://www.civilbeat.org/2016/03/luke-evslin-can-we-grow-our-economy-not-our-population/
8. Will you support efforts to ensure that all vacation rentals, home stay units, bed and breakfast, and all transient vacation units are charged resort property tax rates?
Yes. I tried to increase vacation rental tax rates to be on par with the hotel rate during our first budget cycle, but I was the only vote for it. I tried again to ensure that vacation rental operations with an owner on-site (such as homestays and part-time residents) pay the same vacation rental rate that all other vacation rentals pay (they only pay the commercialized home use rate now) and that bill failed as well. The reason for this is two-fold: 1) to ensure that TVRs are paying for the full cost of infrastructure that their guests use and 2) to try and reduce the number of TVR operations to ensure that our tourism numbers don’t exceed capacity. There is one caveat though. I do not believe that people doing a house swap for a limited duration or those with an income limited homestay permit (there are a handful of them) should pay the full vacation rental rate as there use is not the same as a full TVR.
9. What two ideas do you have about economic diversification and how would you develop these two areas?
We need to do everything that we can to lower the barriers to entry for entrepreneurs. For agriculture, this means allowing farm stands to operate. For other home businesses, this means possibly reviewing our zoning code to allow more small-scale commercial activities to operate within a home. The other aspect of economic diversification comes back to housing. Nobody can start a business if they can’t even afford their rent. And with the cost of housing sky-high—that applies to most young people. I started a business that has helped pay my bills for 13 years while employing 20 other people. But, I could only do so because I started it when I was in college on O’ahu and my parents were paying my rent. The high cost of housing is sucking out all of the oxygen necessary for a diverse economy. So, not only do we need to take all of the measures outlined above to reduce the cost of housing and provide more stimulus for low income folks to pay for housing, but also need to focus on more mixed use housing within our town cores. There is overwhelming evidence that retail operations do better in walkable areas in close proximity to housing. And, what better option for a young budding entrepreneur than to have the option to commute down a staircase to get to work? And because mixed use development patterns within town cores generate higher property tax revenue and cost less to provide infrastructure and municipal services to than neighborhoods far from town—following this type of development pattern outlined in the General Plan will ensure that the County then has more money to be able to spend on small business support and grants in aid.
10. What is your solution to best manage solid waste on Kauai?
We need to significantly increase our diversion efforts—including commercial food waste, construction and demolition materials, and paper waste. Eliminating those from our landfill would save taxpayers and drastically extend the life of our landfill. I see commercial food waste as the low hanging fruit, as it’s 10% of our waste stream, in the absence of air it decomposes into methane which is a powerful greenhouse gas, and there is are suitable alternative uses for it in the form of pig food and compost. If we can create the system, it will save restaurants money (because they’re not paying tipping fees to dump in landfill), it will create alternative businesses (commercial composting facilities and more pig farmers), and it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But, there are a number of barriers to be worked out before we can outright ban commercial food waste in the landfill—most of which involve how the State regulates commercial compost. For construction and demolition material, we just need to help ensure that there are recycling and re-use facilities available to handle the waste stream. Plastic recycling is always going to be a tough nut to crack, because the market for recycled plastic is rapidly contracting. While we should be prioritizing options for re-using plastic, such as Surfriders plan to create bricks out of it—ultimately, we need to do everything that we can to reduce our use of single use plastics.
11. As a member of the County Council, what steps would you take to mitigate the impacts of climate change on Kauai?
This is the $19 billion question (the estimated value of lost property value with 3.2’ of sea level rise). There are no great answers for how we’re going to manage the impacts of sea level rise—as our state highway system will end up underwater in places, potentially cutting off entire communities and we have no system in place to reimburse or even move property owners as their homes fall into the sea. Plus, ocean acidification and increasing water temperatures could lead to the collapse of our coral reefs which would collapse our nearshore fisheries. Plus, increasing range of mosquitos will kill off our last remaining forest birds in Koke’e. Plus, increasing storm events will not only put our lives at risk, but will suck up increasing amounts of state and county funding—leaving less room for social services and other necessary expenditures. Plus, mass migration from uninhabitable areas has the potential to destabilize our politics both locally and across the country. Plus, higher temperatures and extreme weather events will reduce crop output across the world. And we’re only scratching the surface here… so, certainly we need to do all we can to prepare, such as stronger set back ordinances, reducing allowable density along the coastline, ensuring that the county is not building infrastructure in a sea level rise exposure area, etc. But, at least as important as all of that is to reduce carbon emissions. At a local level, that means net zero emissions by 2050 through 100% renewable electricity, diverting food from our waste stream so it doesn’t decompose into methane in our landfill, increasing energy efficiency of buildings through fully implementing building codes such as IECC 2015, and decreasing emissions from transportation through both electrification and reducing VMT. With emissions from transportation rising and far outpacing all other sources, at a county level the best lever we have is to ensure that we’re building homes close to jobs so that people can at least have the option of finding affordable housing close to where they work to ensure a shorter commute. Some more of my thoughts on emissions reduction here https://email@example.com/local-climate-policies-reduce-emissions-and-save-money-86ba887818fc and here https://firstname.lastname@example.org/to-solve-the-climate-crisis-we-need-to-solve-the-housing-crisis-399867c8e9c1
12. Do you support the continued use of the G.E.T. surcharge and how would you prioritize roads and transportation spending?
We have a $300 million backlog in deferred maintenance on our roadway network. The G.E.T surcharge has added approximately $24 million annually to our budget to help pay for roads and public transportation and it’s impossible to argue that that revenue isn’t necessary. But, it is very literally the worst form of taxation—in that it is highly regressive. I do not support continued use of the G.E.T. after the initial ten year sunset and would prefer to see those funds raised through a combination of higher gas/vehicle weight taxes along with higher property taxes on vacant properties. For me, the bottom line is that as much as possible, users of the roads should pay for the roads. We shouldn’t be transferring the burden of road maintenance on our lowest income families (who are much less likely to drive a lot) through the excise tax. But, because our land use patterns have forced many people to live far from work because we don’t build enough housing close to jobs, I also recognize that we need to ensure that people can find affordable housing close to work before we begin significantly raising the gas tax. For me, I feel like we have until the excise tax sunsets in 7 years to ensure a) a more equitable distribution of taxes and b) more options for people to live close to where they work. In the meantime, I think that it’s vital that we do not engage in any significant road widening or new road projects—because we will saddle ourselves with even more road maintenance debt that we can’t afford. For comparison, the county spends approximately seven times more on roads than on affordable housing on Kaua’i. More of my thoughts on the excise tax here: https://www.civilbeat.org/2016/02/luke-evslin-dont-punish-the-poor-by-raising-excise-taxes/ and here: https://www.civilbeat.org/2016/01/in-kauai-lets-not-go-down-the-same-old-road/
13. What else would you like to share with the business community?
I founded an outrigger canoe manufacturing company 13 years ago with two of my closest friends from Kaua’i High. Our dream was to have the business be on Kaua’i—but for a number of reasons (outlined more in the link below), that’s proven impossible and we had to start our business on O’ahu. And so I had to choose between living on Kaua’i or continuing to run my business. That’s not a choice that we should be forcing our next generation to make. Luckily, after four years on O’ahu I was able to come home and manage finance, sales, and customer service remotely while my partner managed production—and that flexibility is what’s enabled me to also be a councilmember. I’ve now been co-managing my company for 9 years, and our business continues to survive while employing 20 people. I understand the daily struggle of making ends meet and I am here to fight for small businesses every single day. Small businesses are the backbone of our community and, especially during this time of COVID-19, we need to ensure that we’re giving them all the support we can. For more of my thoughts on local business: https://oiwi.tv/news/death-of-local-manufacturing/ For my full website: https://www.lukeevslin.com/