Three months ago, the Honolulu Zoo lost its accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, hindering its reputation and ability to bring in exotic animals.

Part of the reason was that the zoo lacked an adequate and consistent source of money. To help the zoo regain its accreditation, a proposed charter amendment would allocate a minimum of one-half of one percent of Oahu’s estimated annual real property taxes each fiscal year to help pay for the zoo’s expenses.

This would generate about $6 million for the zoo annually, said Guy Kaulukukui, director of the city’s Department of Enterprise Services. The amendment would not raise property taxes, he noted.

“The only way to make sure something is going to be there is to put it in the charter,” said David Rae, chairman of the Honolulu Charter Commission.

The Honolulu Zoo sits on land that belongs to the Kapiolani Charitable Trust.
The Honolulu Zoo site just east of Waikiki belongs to the Kapiolani Charitable Trust. Noelle Fujii/Civil Beat

If voters approve Charter Amendment 9 on Nov. 8, the zoo could spend this money on operations, maintenance, repairs and improvements, in addition to salaries, acquisition of zoo animals and debt service.

The money would be deposited into the Honolulu Zoo Fund, which was established earlier this year, beginning July 1, 2017. The fund would be repealed after six years if the zoo does not regain its accreditation.

Any money left over at the end of a fiscal year would remain in the fund and accumulate from year to year, and the money could not be used for purposes other than those listed in the charter amendment.

Kaulukukui said any additional funds the zoo needs to operate come through the city’s regular budgeting process.

Employee turnover and lack of money coming in from the Honolulu Zoo Society, the zoo’s fundraising nonprofit organization, were also cited as concerns by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

The zoo’s director, Baird Fleming, was not available to talk about the amendment last week, according to city spokesperson Andrew Pereira.

George West, a lifelong resident of the Kapahulu area, said he supports the amendment. He is the chairman of the Diamond Head/Kapahulu/St. Louis Heights Neighborhood Board, but was speaking as an individual. The board has not taken a position on the amendment and has not discussed zoo funding.

“I’m not particularly fond of dipping into the property tax, but if that’s what it takes – I’m hoping to get the accreditation back – then I would trust that that’s the path to take,” West said.

Kristen Miyamoto and her two-year-old son watch as penguins swim by the viewing glass.
Kristen Miyamoto and her 2-year-old son gaze into the penguin exhibit. Noelle Fujii/Civil Beat

But Michelle Matson, another neighborhood board member who was speaking as an individual, said siphoning property tax revenue is not the proper remedy for the zoo’s afflictions.

She considers the use of property tax revenue to be a quick and easy fix to longterm problems, and she worries about how many other fixes would subsequently be sought through the same method.

“I can understand the emotional attachment to the zoo. I mean we all have that,” Matson said. “But when it comes to the bottom line and lack of sustainability and all of the sudden affecting our property taxes, then that’s another thing.”

Aletha Rebman, president of the Kapiolani Park Preservation Society, said the organization supports adequate funding for the zoo, but not the charter amendment. While the amendment would give the zoo a dedicated source of funding, she noted the amount of money would vary depending on property tax collections.

Hawaii Kai community activist Natalie Iwasa said mandating a funding source doesn’t mean all of the zoo’s accreditation issues would be solved.

“Is the zoo really important for our community?” Iwasa asked. “Because if it’s important for us to have it, then we should be helping with the accreditation.”

The zebra and giraffe exhibits are located next to each other in the zoo's African Savanna section.
The zebra and giraffe exhibits are located next to each other in the zoo’s African Savanna section. Noelle Fujii/Civil Beat

The amendment may face an uphill battle, according to The Civil Beat Poll, which found that 45 percent of Oahu voters did not want to tap property taxes for the zoo, 38 percent liked the idea and 13 percent declined to share their preference.

The amendment was brought to the commission by City Council Chairman Ernie Martin, who also introduced the successful City Council measure to create the Honolulu Zoo Fund. In written testimony for the Charter Commission’s May meeting, he said the zoo’s funding has a historical pattern of being uneven at best and politically motivated at worst.

“We must bring to a halt this practice and provide the facility with the stability and support to ensure high quality animal care, proper maintenance and repair of the facilities, and sufficient resources to conduct future planning,” he wrote.

In testimony provided at the City Council’s May meeting regarding the measure to create the Honolulu Zoo Fund, Kaulukukui told the Council the zoo receives a $7 million annual subsidy from the city’s general fund, and its operating expenses average about $6.5 million to $6.6 million.

But he added that the zoo needs about $13 million annually to cover all of its expenses, including debt service.

In addition to the general funds, the zoo also gets money from entrance fees, contributions from the Honolulu Zoo Society and other donations.

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