In Mayor Peter Carlisle‘s State of the City Address, he claimed Honolulu could run for only five days with what’s left in its rainy day fund.

“Equally concerning is the amount currently in the city’s “rainy day” fund: a paltry $29 million,” Carlisle said. “That is only enough to keep the city operating for five days.”

Is it accurate that $29 million would only go that far?

The mayor is right, if he envisions paying for the entire operation on a daily basis. That’s a matter of dividing the total budget by 365 days and figuring out what the daily cost of government is. It’s roughly $5 million a day.

But what’s really required to operate Honolulu’s government? What if the city chose only to provide essential services?

The question of what’s an essential service has been on the national radar as of late.

Democrats and Republicans squabbling over the national budget reached a temporary compromise Tuesday to avoid a government shutdown. According to the Associated Press, the U.S. House of Representatives passed emergency legislation that would prevent the federal government from closing its doors.

A key point, though, is that a shutdown wouldn’t have really been a shutdown. Even if Congress hadn’t come to an agreement and government had, in fact, “shut down,” essential services would still have kept chugging. The military, police, medical care for people in health-care facilities and emergency outpatient care, air traffic control, emergency and disaster assistance, prisons and other services would all have continued to function.

So, assuming Honolulu had to cut down to its bare bones, what would be essential and how much would it cost?

Before the 2001 legislative session, Hawaii Revised Statutes actually defined an “essential employee” and an “essential position.” But, by the end of the session, Act 90 was signed into law, eliminating the definitions.

A snippet of the act says:

“However, the legislature is fully aware of the negative impact privatization and managed competition will have on public sector employees’ ability to negotiate fair and adequate compensation packages, as the balance of negotiating power will be tipped in favor of public sector management. In order to ensure that the fragile balance between employer and employee negotiating leverage is maintained, the legislature believes that certain public employees should have their right to strike reinstated and that the essential employee statutes should be repealed.”

The original definition of an “essential employee” was: “An employee designated by the public employer to fill an essential position.”

The original definition of an “essential position” was: “Any position designated by the board as necessary to be worked in order to avoid or remove any imminent or present danger to the public health or safety, which position shall be filled by the public employer.”

For the purposes of the Fact Check, we’ll use these definitions despite their removal by the Legislature. In the case of an emergency (which, presumably would be the case if the city were entirely reliant on the “rainy day” fund to function), essential services would include those services – and only those services – related to public health and safety.

These would include the Honolulu Police Department, the Honolulu Fire Department, the Honolulu Department of Environmental Services (waste water, sewage, trash), the Honolulu Department of Emergency Management, the Honolulu Emergency Services Department and the Honolulu Transportation Services Department (traffic control).

The cost* of each department follows:

Department Annual Expenses Seven-Day Expense Five-Day Expense
Honolulu Police Department $237,068,387 $4,546,517 $3,247,512
Honolulu Fire Department $101,551,055 $1,942,233 $1,387,310
Honolulu Department of Emergency Management $1,444,953 $27,711 $19,794
Honolulu Emergency Services Department $32,898,637 $630,933 $450,667
Honolulu Transportation Services Department $5,255,702 $100,794 $71,995
Honolulu Department of Environmental Services $248,952,173 $4,774,420 $3,410,300
Total $627,170,907 $12,022,608 $8,587,578

(* Figures based on the FY 2011 executive budget.)

If you look at the total for essential departments for a work week, the $29 million in the “rainy day” fund would last the city close to three and a half weeks.

When Civil Beat asked the mayor what services he considered essential, Managing Director Doug Chin responded through spokeswoman Louise Kim McCoy via e-mail saying: “The City’s operating budget for its executive agencies for the fiscal year from July 2010 through June 2011 required expenditures of $1.818 billion and the calculation as to the length of time the fiscal stability fund would be able to keep the City operating was based on that amount. Mayor Carlisle’s statement did not distinguish between “essential” or “non-essential” City services.”

Because the mayor was not basing his analysis on what is considered “essential,” we can hardly fault him. His facts support his claim.

But, his statement made it seem that government would have no choice but to continue to operate business as usual. That’s not the case.

If it had to, Honolulu could survive using the money in the “rainy day” fund for more than three times what Carlisle claimed.