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In the 1980s, Donald Kapaku coached his son’s baseball team at Kalanianiole Beach Park in Nanakuli. On a June afternoon almost 40 years later, he sat in the same dugout with his bat and gear, waiting for his grandsons to arrive for practice.
These days the field is rundown, its playing surface rutted. But one thing hasn’t changed: It’s still the west Oahu community’s only recreational baseball field.
“This is crap,” said Kapaku, who’s visited ballfields around the state. “This baseball field is pretty much done.”
When city lawmakers send money to parks on Oahu’s Leeward Coast, Kapaku said it “leapfrogs” Nanakuli and ends up in the larger, neighboring town of Waianae.
And while Waianae may fare better than neighboring communities, the amount of money flowing to any west side park through the capital budget pales in comparison to parks in Ala Moana and Kakaako.
Complaining about park spending is a common pastime on Oahu. It’s even done by City Council members like Ann Kobayashi, whose district stretches from Kaimuki to Kakaako, and Kymberly Pine, who represents the entire Leeward Coast.
Fixing longtime problems with bathrooms in west side parks is more important than the current plan to erect a $250,000 statue in Thomas Square, said Kobayashi, who chairs the Parks Committee but lost her position on the more powerful Budget Committee in January.
When Pine joined the council four years ago, she said she was “dismayed” at the conditions of parks in her district.
Since then, Mayor Kirk Caldwell has increased overall park spending significantly, she said.
“He has improved parks throughout the island that you don’t necessarily see in the budget,” Pine said.
Still, she said, it’s important to acknowledge the disparities in recreational facilities among Oahu communities.
It’s difficult to say exactly how much taxpayers spend on each of Oahu’s 300 parks. The money is divided into two budgets.
An operating budget covers salaries and other ongoing expenses such as maintenance and groundskeeping, but it isn’t broken down by parks.
Part of the capital budget goes to individual parks for specific improvement projects. Civil Beat’s analysis focuses on this funding, and breaks it down by dollars spent per resident in each neighborhood board district over the last 10 years.
In Nanakuli-Maili, for instance, the spending per resident was $17 annually. In Waianae, it was $41. And in Ala Moana-Kakaako, it was $110.
The rest of the capital budget is used at the discretion of the Department of Parks and Recreation for various projects. Some of that money is divided up among five park districts, while some is appropriated for general purposes like fixing wastewater systems. It’s difficult to track which parks receive this funding, and the department did not make anyone available to address its budgets.
When the Honolulu City Council passed the fiscal year 2018 capital budget Wednesday, $20 million was designated for Ala Moana Regional Park for wider sidewalks, greener grass and other improvements. The second highest lump sum for a single park in the capital budget was $4.9 million for lighting improvements at Waialua District Park on the North Shore.
The third-highest amount was $4.7 million for improvements at Thomas Square in Kakaako.
Numbers in the graphic below represent capital funding allocated for specific projects in individual parks from fiscal years 2007 to 2017. They do not include the operating budget or funding for nature preserves, land purchases, agricultural lands and grounds associated with The Trust for Public Land.
The graphic shows the average spent per resident in neighborhood districts based on the 2010 census.
Source: City and County of Honolulu
A spokesman for Mayor Kirk Caldwell said the mayor would not comment on parks spending for this report.
Officials from the parks department also didn’t comment on their spending practices, and department spokesman Nathan Serota communicated with reporters only through email, ignoring telephone messages.
“A large, concerted effort is made to evenly prioritize where our CIP and maintenance (funding) is spent,” Serota wrote.
In his 2018 budget proposal, Caldwell said improving parks is among his top priorities.
Tony Torres visits Beretania Community Park just outside of Chinatown twice a week in the summer to play ping pong in one of the recreation rooms with his friend, You Ying Lin. Torres credits ping pong for preserving the bounce in his step.
“The more you play the longer you live,” he said.
In next room, about 30 dancers beat drums and danced eisa, an Okinawan folk dance performed at Bon festivals.
Parks are becoming more “essential” as the island’s population grows, Kobayashi said.
“Not everyone can afford to (host events at) the Sheraton ballroom,” she said “They go to the parks and bring their musubi and it’s a great place.”
The park fills with residents of nearby high- and low-rises despite what the park lacks: Just two swings hang from a swing set made for six, the water fountain no longer works and graffiti covers the playground.
One block away, Aala Park’s popular skate park draws crowds daily, but skateboarder Adam Aquino says the bathrooms are unsafe and populated by “chronics,” or people using drugs.
The parks sit on the edge of the Chinatown and Kalihi-Palama neighborhoods. Neither has received any line item CIP funding in the last 10 years.
Even neighborhood districts that do receive more taxpayer dollars have their share of rundown facilities.
Sandy Beach Park near Hawaii Kai has received $1.2 million since 2014, but beachgoers complained about the bathrooms on a hot day in May. One recalled a groundskeeper prohibiting anyone from entering the bathroom while he scrubbed fecal matter off the floor.
In the women’s stalls, makeshift, overflowing trash cans were fashioned out of plastic jugs that had been cut open. The words “PUSH HANDLE IN” are spray painted on walls behind toilets to advise visitors on how to use the finicky flush levers.
One toilet that wouldn’t flush appeared to be clogged with vomit and wads of toilet paper.
Like many Honolulu parks, there’s no soap to be found.
“(The bathrooms) are kind of terrible,” said Jordan Reindollar of Kailua, who was visiting with friends from Kailua and Kaneohe.
The showers at Sandy Beach are in good condition, they said, but beach parks near Kailua are in much better shape overall.
Some attribute the filth and trash to the high volume of visitors, but the men speculated Sandy Beach might be in worse shape because more locals, as opposed to tourists, visit the beach.
Ala Moana Regional Park near Hawaii’s tourism center sees about 4 million visitors annually — the most visitors to any park on the island. Parks department surveys indicate it’s the most popular park among locals, Serota said.
It also pulled in more money over the last 10 years than any single neighborhood board district.
North Shore Neighborhood Board member Mike McNeace likes solving puzzles and fixing what’s broken. When he put his career as an automotive technician on hold to become a stay-at-home dad, McNeace took on the project of fixing North Shore parks.
His neighborhood board district received the second-most line-item capital funding over the past decade at $18.3 million, or about $91 per resident annually. Still, McNeace says there’s work to be done.
He heads the board’s parks committee and adopted Aweoweo Beach Park in Waialua through the city’s adopt-a-park program.
Adopting the park meant helping out the overwhelmed parks staff, McNeace said.
“We do have a lack of parks staff, and I’m sure that’s a part of the problem,” he said, adding that in addition to construction and repair projects, there’s a deficiency in general maintenance.
“The grounds maintenance guys, they go in and just spray the whole (restroom) down with a hose and then they walk out,” he said. “Its more and more disgusting.”
McNeace said public-private partnerships seem like “the only way to get stuff done.” Last year, he worked with the nonprofit Malama Pupukea Waimea to restore basketball courts at Pupukea Beach Park.
In the late-1990s, civil engineer-turned-skate shop owner Chad Hiyakumoto made it his mission to construct skate parks around Oahu.
After helping to design Aala Skate Park, he adopted it. Hiyakumoto and his staff at APB Skateshop take time out of their day to clean the park and paint over graffiti.
Having residents donate labor to improve parks is vital to getting things done, McNeace said.
Even with willing volunteers from their community, McNeace and Hiyakumoto found themselves tangled in the city’s bureaucratic system when working with city officials to improve parks.
Politics, they say, can get in the way of parks improvements.
“It seems to be like a courtship dance,” McNeace said. “If you do something wrong, if you step on someone’s toes, you’ve got to go back to square one.”
Hiyakumoto had spent five years attending meetings with city officials to plan and design skate parks when an incoming parks director threatened to scrap the plans and end the meetings, he said.
When the city finally moved forward to build Makiki Skate Park, Hiyakumoto heard about it through the grapevine.
Pine, who introduced a controversial bill to allow private sponsorship of public parks and facilities, said she hopes it will allow people in her Leeward Coast district to improve their parks.
The council passed the bill last month. Pine said people in her district may not know the avenues of civic engagement as well as those in downtown areas.
“I only have another three or four years left (in office),” she said. “So I want to encourage my community to fill those gaps should another elected official not make parks a priority.”
Kobayashi hopes that by the time she leaves the council, every park bathroom will have soap.
Working toilets are a top priority, she said, adding there should be enough money in the parks budget for soap and paper towels, but “it seems that it’s not being spent.”