- Special Projects
Mayor Kirk Caldwell has made cleaning up the city’s parks a top priority of his administration, going so far as to hold his State of the City address last month at Ala Moana Beach Park to highlight his plans to upgrade Oahu’s “crown jewels.”
But one park advocacy group says the city isn’t going far enough to fix up the most treasured “jewel in the crown” — Hanauma Bay.
The nature preserve and snorkeling haven has fallen into a state of disrepair because the city has not used hundreds of thousands of dollars that have been sitting in a special fund for the beach park’s upkeep for years, according to Friends of Hanauma Bay President Richard Baker.
In testimony recently submitted to the Honolulu City Council’s Budget Committee, Baker painted a picture of crumbling roofs, corroded hand railings and broken parking lot lights.
The park has also been shut down twice in recent weeks, once for an hour and a half and once for a full day, because of water and sewage pipe problems.
“Our basic issue is that there are substantial amounts of unmet maintenance, repair, upkeep and modernization needs at the bay that have piled up over the years,” Baker told Civil Beat. “And with the surplus that is in the fund, they could meet all of the estimated amount of needs and still have plenty left over.”
The nonprofit group also claims that the city hasn’t been transparent for years about how the special fund is being spent and says the city has been siphoning off interest from the fund for other uses, in violation of the spirit and intent of the fund.
City officials say they are working to make the fund expenditures more transparent, however, and argue that it’s standard city policy to use interest from special funds for other purposes.
Meanwhile, Honolulu City Parks and Recreation Director Toni Robinson says that numerous repairs are planned in the upcoming 2015 fiscal year for Hanauma Bay’s facilities that should address a number of the maintenance concerns.
Still, Baker says that the city should be spending twice as much from the special fund for next year’s maintenance.
The City Council created the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve Fund in 1996 in response to the growing number of visitors to the bay and resulting damage to its coral reefs, which host more than 400 tropical marine species.
Admission and parking fees, as well as concession rents, are deposited into the fund, which is supposed to be used for the operation and upkeep of the preserve, public education programs and making sure Hanauma Bay isn’t admitting too many visitors.
Friends of Hanauma Bay, formed in 1990, played an instrumental role in the council’s decisions to enact greater controls to protect the bay. The nonprofit volunteer organization, which has roughly 60 to 100 dues-paying members, according to Baker, started out leading education campaigns and conducts quarterly bay cleanups.
But the city has tried to raid the fund for other uses. In 2002, a federal judge ruled that admission fees to the park could not be diverted for other uses. The city was using the revenues to pay for repairs at Koko Head District Park, Maunalaua Beach Park, Koko Head Botanical Garden and Koko Head Rifle Range, according to past media reports.
The city had to pay back $3.6 million to the preserve fund between fiscal years 2004 and 2009 because of the ruling.
But Baker says that during these years the fund only increased by $630,000 and Friends of Hanauma Bay hasn’t been able to get answers from city officials as to what happened to the additional $3 million.
“If everything was going fine at the bay, we wouldn’t have to ask these questions,” he said. “But given the backlog of unmet needs, questions come up as to why the money is not there.”
Baker also says that interest from the fund should go to the fund, noting that it’s “not chump change” given the size of the principal.
“We don’t know how much the interest is,” said Baker. “We have asked and nobody has told us. We do know it doesn’t go to the bay.”
The mayor’s office did not respond to questions about how the $3 million that was reimbursed to the fund in past years was spent, how much interest the fund has earned or how that interest has been used.
But Jay Parasco, a spokesman for the mayor, said by email that the preserve’s “funds can only be used for valid expenditures.” He noted that the fund also faces a third-party audit every year.
As for the fund’s interest, Parasco said it is not city policy to “allocate interest to special funds unless required by the ordinance that established the fund.”
Robinson, the Parks director, also said that the city is working to put detailed information about the fund online in the interest of transparency.
But Ann Kobayashi, chair of the City Council’s Budget Committee, said that the council might require a more comprehensive audit of the fund if things don’t become more transparent. She also said that the city shouldn’t be diverting the interest away from the fund.
“All (Friends of Hanauma Bay) want is transparency, so they know how much money is in it and where it is going. And they should have a say in the administration of the program,” she said. “But definitely, the interest should stay in their fund.”
The Friends of Hanauma Bay say that apart from the transparency issues, they’re also angry that the fund has continued to grow when more money should be spent on maintenance and repairs.
The fund had a balance of $2.3 million in fiscal year 2009, which grew to $4.2 million in fiscal year 2013.
Friends of Hanauma Bay estimate that the preserve needs roughly $1.7 million in repairs, which would still leave the fund flush. It currently has a balance of about $4 million.
“Hanauma Bay is the jewel in the crown of the Honolulu park system, but it is being allowed to progressively deteriorate,” Baker told the City Council’s Budget Committee last week. “This should not be tolerated.”
Robinson, a 37-year veteran of the parks department, said that while Hanauma Bay has, like other parks around Oahu, suffered from neglect in the past, the Caldwell administration has been working to change that.
“I think Hanauma Bay has been one of (this administration’s) priorities,” said Robinson.
In the 2015 fiscal year, she said the parks department plans to fix the roof of the theater and the restrooms, re-thatch the roof of the information center and repair the faux rock facade on the outside of the visitors center. The parks department also plans to fix the parking lot lights, said Robinson, but doesn’t know how long that might take.
The city is already spending $100,000 for rock-fall mitigation work and the Caldwell administration has proposed spending $50,000 to calculate how many visitors the park can handle each year while still preserving the marine sanctuary.
The fiscal 2015 budget is currently being debated by the City Council.
You can read Friends of Hanauma Bay’s written testimony to the City Council here.