KAHULUI – Environmentalists and farmers lashed out Thursday night at the announced layoffs of state agricultural inspectors, arguing that the move planned by the Lingle administration would uproot efforts to preserve the island’s agricultural industry and pristine environment.
Close to 100 people turned out at a Senate Ad Hoc Committee meeting held in the Maui Waena Intermediate School cafeteria. The crowd applauded those who spoke against the layoffs, some even attacking Gov. Linda Lingle.
Jeffrey Parker, president of Tropical Orchid Farm Inc., lashed out after being told by agricultural officials that they would no longer be able to inspect and certify nurseries and his flower shipments.
"So to have 30 years learning skills and developing my unique business, and surviving one of the worst economic downturns of our lifetimes, and then have a single blind ideologue, who refuses to examine the economic and environmental impacts of her cuts and refuses to look at other options, unilaterally say ‘You are out of business’ is outrageous," Parker said. "Her management of the state is so irresponsible; she should be removed from office."
Teya Penniman, the Maui Invasive Species Committee, called Lingle’s plan "ill-conceived, shortsighted," and said the extensive cuts would have unprecedented impacts on farmers as well as pose unacceptable risks to the environment.
"These are not minor concerns," Penniman said. She said the layoffs would increase the risk of brown tree snakes, West Nile virus and red imported fire ants. Without the necessary number of inspectors in place, Maui faces the risk of decreased quality of food and increase in prices to consumers.
Last month, employees with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and other state agencies were served notice that they would lose their jobs by November.
In the Agriculture Department’s Plant Quarantine Branch, 52 of 112 positions are to be eliminated, representing 54 percent of the state’s agricultural inspectors.
On Maui, six of the current 17 inspector positions would be cut. Of the remaining 11 positions, six are paid for by the state Department of Transportation to work only at Kahului Airport.
Lingle spokesman Russell Pang has said the governor is aware of the impacts of the cuts. He noted that Lingle had to specifically target positions that are paid for out of the state’s general fund in order to balance the budget and close an $884 million budget gap. That meant certain agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture, took a bigger hit than other departments whose budgets are drawn from special funds, Pang said.
A suggestion that federal agriculture inspectors and/or volunteers could assist with the workload left by layoffs would not help much, according to Carol Okada, manager of the Agriculture Department’s Plant Quarantine Branch. She said federal inspectors focus on cargo headed to the Mainland and not containers coming into Hawaii.
A proposal also surfaced this week to tap the state’s invasive species special fund and use the money to restore about half of the agricultural inspection positions.
But some conservationists balked at the idea.
"You’re robbing Peter to pay Paul," said Dale Bonar of the Maui Coastal Land Trust.
Bonar said it was difficult for him to imagine delays in inspections of food supplies and invasive species coming into the islands. "Our environment is our economy," Bonar said. "It is the truth, and it is what we’re going to lose here."
Penniman said she’s conflicted about money for invasive species, which takes a more preventative approach by using public education, research and technology, and outreach in the community.
"This ‘solution’ will simply shift the problem to the ‘back end’ of the invasive species network," Penniman said. She said some of the invasive species committees, including Maui’s, would have to cease operations.
"Simply put, we are all in this together. Our agricultural industry, economy and environment depend on maintaining both the prevention and response and control elements of the statewide invasive species program," Penniman said.
Big Island state Sen. Russell Kokubun chaired Thursday night’s meeting, saying he and his colleagues, including Maui Sens. Roz Baker, Shan Tsutsui and J. Kalani English, wanted to give the public a chance to comment on the layoffs. Kokubun said they’ve been accused of "riling up" audiences by holding such informational briefings, but he said he believed such hearings were necessary to be consistent with the Senate’s stance that such far-reaching decisions should be made with constituents’ input.
Members of the state House of Representatives have also discussed the issue.
Upcountry Rep. Kyle Yamashita said the House Agriculture Committee met in Honolulu on Wednesday to hear from importers about the impacts of inspector layoffs.
He said it sounded like the cuts would result in a major backlog of goods entering the state.
"They’re already running pretty inefficiently as far as trying to inspect all the containers," he said. "With less inspectors, it’s just going to slow them down."
The problem would be magnified on Maui and other Neighbor Islands because cargo would have to be routed through Honolulu for inspection if the layoffs take place, he added.
"It adds to time and cost," he said.
Yamashita said the layoffs should be reassessed, since the cuts are only expected to save the state Department of Agriculture around $5 million.
"If we’re talking about a $900 million shortfall, that’s a drop in the bucket, and the impact is close to a billion dollars to the economy," he said.
At the Senate hearing Thursday, William G. Jacintho, a lifelong cattle farmer and president of the Maui Cattlemen’s Association, also spoke of impacts on his and his fellow farmers’ business.
Jacintho was particularly concerned about inspections of imported cattle feed. More than 42,000 head of cattle were exported out of Hawaii in 2005, he said.
"Delays at the pier would reduce the freshness and quality of feed, and livestock producers might run out of feed inventory before the shipment arrives," Jacintho said. He said there’s not enough pasture grass to support all the animals on Maui and ranches are not set up to make adjustments because of fewer agriculture inspectors.
Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang testified as a "government worker," showing concern about invasive species and harmful vectors coming into the environment unchecked. He said the Health Department itself is going to see a 70 percent cut in the number of staff in its vector control division.
Pang worried out loud about the potential of diseases brought by certain species. As an example, he spoke of inspectors finding sand fleas on the legendary Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokulea during a recent visit to Maui.
According to Pang, such fleas carry three to four "horrible" diseases that have no treatment or vaccine. "Nobody likes that," Pang said, pointing out that had the inspectors not found the fleas, they would have been introduced into the environment with very little chance of being eradicated.
Agricultural inspectors have also been helpful in helping farmers thrive, according to former protea farmer Linda Puppolo. She recounted an incident years ago when confiscation became an issue with a shipment of flowers to Japan. She said a trade mission was organized and from there she learned what it took to have her goods moved through Hawaii and into a foreign country such as Japan.
"Collaboration in agriculture is what is needed now," Puppolo said.
She recommended forming a task force to study the issue and come up with solutions as was the case in her trade mission in Japan. "You need professionals on the job," she said. "This is a bad thing," Puppolo added, referring to the layoffs.
* Claudine San Nicolas can be reached at email@example.com.