HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Some Honolulu council member's are questioning how much the rail transit project is paying for office space and if it's really necessary to have such a plush space in downtown. The offices are much nicer than the council members own offices but HART says they just moved into what was available four years ago.
The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation employees work on the 17th and 23rd floors of the Alii Place Building. The offices are occupied by engineers, architects, financial analysts and more. Their main role is oversight over the nearly $5.5 billion rail project. More than $100,000 from that budget is going to rent each month. For the two floors the city is spending $1.3 million a year for rent, maintenance fees and utilities.
"This is the best place to be right now," said Paul Romaine, HART Administrative Services Officer.
From the offices you can see down to Honolulu Hale where some council members think there had to be other options for office space.
"I don't know if it's the most efficient use and wise use of taxpayer dollars and I think there may be other alternatives," said Tom Berg, Honolulu Councilmember who represents Leeward Oahu. "I don't believe it was fully exercised to the fullest that they looked for office space outside downtown Honolulu."
Romaine says HART employees need to be close to Honolulu Hale and the state capitol to testify at hearings because it's not just the director, but support staff as well that attend meetings.
HART says it would have used existing city space if there was any.
"We would love to but there is no other city space or office buildings available. That was one of the hardest things, the city is completely filled up," said Romaine. "Before we rented the 23rd floor we did kind of a research in this area. It was averaging about $1.71 a square foot. We're paying $1.70 so we're pretty good."
HART has also budgeted $9.3 million for salaries for 136 employees. On average that's $68,300 a person. There is another $3.9 million for employee benefits.
"Well that's on average and that means someone is making a little bit more coin than that. What are the qualifications? How is it they met the specs to be in that job position? We don't know," said Berg.
"I think it's an appropriate salary," said Romaine. "They're worth every penny."
Right now HART has 61 employees. They plan to have the full 136 people by next year. Three council members have asked for a full list of names, duties and salaries for the HART staff to see if that many people are truly necessary or if they're riding the gravy train.
"I haven't seen anything that justifies that number of employees," said Berg.
"We're bringing on the appropriate people at the appropriate time. That's why we're not fully staffed yet. We adjust our hiring based on schedule and where we are in the project. We didn't just bring everybody here and wait for the work to come. No way that's happening," said Romaine.
There were some areas we weren't allowed to see, like the main conference room where a meeting was being held or the document control center where we're told every contract regarding the project is stored.
HART employees first moved into the 17th floor in 2007 and that lease is up in two years. They moved into the 23rd floor last year and that lease expires 2020. That rent goes up another three percent next year.