HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - State agriculture inspectors are worried about a move by State House leaders to stop the restoration of two dozen inspectors' positions. The Agriculture Department has been trying to recover from layoffs four years ago that cut the number of inspectors in half.
The state handled five to seven investigations each year of alien species such as snakes, lizards and other reptiles back in 2009 when former Gov. Linda Lingle eliminated about half of the state's 97 agriculture inspectors.
This year, the state dealt with 35 cases of alien animals and reptiles a 500 percent increase that Ag officials blame on a lack of inspectors in the field.
"Things are getting through us and we are supposed to be the first line of defense," said Carol Okada, manager of the Plant Quarantine Branch. Allowing certain alien pests to get into Hawaii and proliferate could cause millions of dollars to Hawaii's farm industry, she said.
At Honolulu International Airport, the state used to have ag inspectors nearly around the clock for air cargo, but now is only able to schedule a day shift.
"That means all the perishable items, the seafood, cut flowers, fresh produce must sit there and the importers must either pay overtime or they must sit there overnight," Okada said.
On Tuesday, airport inspectors found fungus in a box of produce that came off a plane and marked it to be burned, so the fungus doesn't spread to Hawaii fruits and vegetables.
Last year, state lawmakers restored about $1.2 million in funding for 24 inspector positions. But this year, leaders in the State House want to cut all of that money, even as the Agriculture department is trying to recruit people to fill those spots.
"So it's difficult to recruit when there's only a couple of months worth of being able to hold that position," Okada said, noting that salary money for the 24 restored positions will expire on July 1, if the cuts happen.
Many inspectors are doubling or tripling up on duties. Instead of working in the field, inspector Chris Kishimoto is temporarily assigned as the plant quarantine division's only entomologist. His job: identifying the 1,000 to 2,000 insects found in produce, cut flowers and plants coming to the islands every year.
"We're burning ourselves out because trying to all these various jobs and trying to protect the agriculture environment," said Glenn Sakamoto, an inspector who is also working on recruiting new inspectors while handling community outreach, which includes visits to schools.
It's a complex job for which training can take about two years. So even if the ag inspectors' funding remains in the budget, plenty of time will pass before new inspectors are ready to go into the field.
State Ag officials hope that when State House and State Senate negotiators nail down the details of the state budget, those 24 inspector positions will remain and not be cut.