KAILUA-KONA — Agricultural thieves and vandals created enough disruption on Hawaii Island last year to grab the county’s attention. Now, they’ve caught the eye of the state Legislature.
The Hawaii Department of Agriculture in 2017 entered into a contract with the Hawaii County Prosecutor’s Office developing a pilot program to target agricultural theft and vandalism across the island. Two bills moving through the state Legislature this session would expand and extend that program for two more years.
Senate Bill 2111 cleared a joint committee of Judiciary and Ways and Means Friday morning and moves next to a vote on the Senate floor, likely on March 6. Its companion, House Bill 1883, cleared the Finance Committee Wednesday and is destined for a floor vote, as well.
The measures would bolster the pilot program by adding a second investigative position to the one established in September. It would also require the HDOA provide the Legislature with an assessment of the program’s effectiveness prior to the 2020 session, when it would be considered for continuation and statewide implementation.
“Ag theft and vandalism, they are problems that are statewide,” said Sen. Mike Gabbard (D-Oahu), who introduced the Senate measure. “But I believe it makes sense to start this initiative on Hawaii Island, which in a lot of ways is our state’s breadbasket.”
Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth said the first few months of the initial program were comprised mostly of logistical work and training, but that investigator Shane Muramaru has already made a tangible impact on ag crimes perpetrated countywide.
“Obviously one year is probably not enough to get everything done that you want to do, but we’ve been successful with it, so we want to continue that,” Roth said.
One investigation Roth mentioned in which Muramaru played a significant role is the “famous goat case,” involving the felony theft of seven goats, spray-painted green, from a fenced area in Paukaa last St. Patrick’s Day.
The eventual arrests spawned other charges, all of which took place before Muramaru began in the new position. However, agricultural crimes are notoriously difficult to stop, investigate and prosecute, and work after the fact with the Hawaii Police Department is an important part of Muramaru’s duties, Roth explained.
“Shane is carrying a lot of water on these cases,” he said.
Muramaru spends a lot of his time working with farmers and investigating farmers markets, looking to crackdown on thieves after the fact who try to move stolen produce themselves or through a third party.
Roth said considering the size of the island and the scope of the work, an extra investigator would be a boon in the effort to curb and prosecute ag crimes throughout Hawaii County.
“Shane is covering the whole island. That’s not only quite a bit of work but quite a bit of driving, and there’s some pretty serious stuff, especially on the Kona side, that we’re looking into with coffee,” Roth said. “Coffee is the one product of Hawaii that we’re at the top of the chain. There’s a lot of people that rely on that.”
Gabbard, who attended a meeting in South Kona in October and spoke to several exasperated farmers, said he’s pleased with the progress thus far, adding the state “definitely needs to continue the program.”
“These guys are trying to earn a living and trying to feed their families and feed others and (then they have) to deal with this crap,” Gabbard said. “I am hopeful.”
Scott Enright, chairperson of the Board of Agriculture, testified HDOA supports the program and the accompanying legislation, assuming it doesn’t supersede any of the department’s other budgetary priorities.
The department is paying for the one-year program now in effect out of the HDOA budget, which is how the two-year program extension will be funded if it comes to fruition.
While the funding total remains blank on both legislative measures, Gabbard said he’s spoken to decision makers within HDOA and the general consensus is that $200,000 over two years, or roughly $100,000 per year, appears to be the magic number.
Randy Cabral, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, testified in support of the program, saying that when one considers all the other issues farmers face — weather, pests and labor shortages, among several others — it’s “a wonder farms and ranches remain viable.”
Ramped-up ag theft enforcement, he said, is crucial to protecting the industry in Hawaii.
“In working with our members, HDOA, and law enforcement, we have collectively concluded that dedicated enforcement officers housed in the county prosecutor’s office would be a giant step forward in minimizing agricultural crimes and enhancing public safety,” Cabral wrote.
“Too often a farmer or rancher has sweated, worried, and worked to the bone to produce a crop, only to wake up one morning to find that an opportunistic criminal has helped himself to the harvest.”