Millions of dollars in taxpayer funds are being funneled to nonprofits and other special interest groups with little public vetting or oversight through a series of earmarks placed in Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s budget by Honolulu City Council members.

This money, which could amount to as much as $8 million depending on how you classify the appropriations, is in addition to $5.5 million that was set aside as part of a voter-approved Grants-in-Aid program that was created for the specific purpose of funding nonprofits.

The Grants-in-Aid fund is in its first year. It dedicates 0.5 percent of the city’s general fund revenues in a specific pool of money that can only go to organizations that serve economically or socially disadvantaged populations or that provide other public benefits, such as those related to arts, culture and the environment.

But while there’s supposed to be a system of checks and balances to ensure these funds are spent properly — such as an advisory commission and other administrative procedures — questions remain about council members’ earmarks.

Last week, Honolulu City Councilman Breene Harimoto took a stand against the practice of his colleagues burying their pet projects in the budget without so much as an explanation.

It wasn’t his first time raising the issue. He did it once before when the council had only inserted about $3 million in the budget for nonprofits. He said it was even more important to speak out now because the amount has more than doubled.

“Why am I here?” Harimoto asked. “Is it just to bring money home to my district or is it just to do what I think is right for all the people of the city and county?

“Sometimes we like to go along, but I think sometimes we have to really stop and analyze what we’re doing. In this budget I think there are really some things that we need to stop and ask questions about.”

The earmarks Harimoto referred to are in the $2 billion operating budget. Among them are $1.5 million Councilwoman Kymberly Pine inserted for the Leeward Coast Community Benefits Program and $3.4 million Council Chair Ernie Martin tacked on for several different programs, including those that focused on high-risk and socially disadvantaged youth.

These are similar to the programs the $5.5 million Grants-in-Aid fund could support, Harimoto said, except the projects don’t appear to be scrutinized as much as they should.

“I’m concerned that now outside of this voter-approved process the council members are inserting into this budget line items with named nonprofits that we’re giving money to and I don’t think that’s what the voters signed up for us to do,” Harimoto said.

“I really want to stress that nonprofits are doing great work and I would like to support them. But I don’t think that we’re being good stewards of the taxpayers’ money by us deciding to give away money to specific nonprofits largely with no discussion. Up to this point we had no discussion about who we’re giving money to, why or what for, and I’m really concerned about that.”

Most of the new appropriations come from Martin, whose district includes Wahiawa and the North Shore. Geographically he has the largest council district.

According to budget figures, Martin inserted more than $6 million into the budget for nonprofits and other groups that Harimoto referred to at last week’s meeting. But Martin was not shy when addressing Harimoto’s concerns, even openly admitting that he had included the most earmarks.

“I submitted the bulk of them, and I’m not ashamed of it,” Martin said. “Contrary to what may be asserted, when I ran for office I’m doing exactly what I said I would do because there was a critical need in my particular area, and as you can see from a lot of the proposals that are proposed, it extends beyond just my district.”

It’s no secret that Martin has an affinity for nonprofits. In fact, he introduced the resolution that put the Grants-in-Aid program on the November 2012 ballot.

He pushed for the measure because of cuts in Community Development Block Grant funding. Typically this money goes to the types of programs the Grants-in-Aid fund support, but the city had seen these dollars dwindle from $14.5 million in Fiscal Year 2010 to $11.9 million in Fiscal Year 2012.

Martin noted that CDBG funds could become even more scarce in the years to come, citing a policy brief from the National Association of Counties that says the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s CDBG program had been cut by $1 billion since Fiscal Year 2010. That’s a drop of about 25 percent.

He also said there’s plenty of oversight when it comes to approving who gets the funding. Not only does he have to convince the majority of the nine-member council to go along with his proposals, but the administration also gets its say on how the money is spent.

“I put my money where my statement is,” Martin said, directing his comments toward Harimoto. “You cannot say you support (nonprofits) and not be willing to support them with providing them with the funding to do the necessary work that they need to do. It’s just a matter of differing philosophies, and I respect (Harimoto’s) opinion.”

But what the council decides to do with the money has very real consequences.

Council members want to restore bus routes that the Carlisle administration cut last year by about $7 million. While Caldwell has dedicated about $3.5 million to restoring these cuts, many council members want more to be done.

There’s also about $26 million in impending salary increases from newly negotiated union contracts. The administration is considering raiding surplus and retirement funds to help cover these costs along with money that has been set aside to fill employee vacancies.

Budget Director Nelson Koyanagi touched on this last week when he questioned the timing of the council’s earmarks, something that could be seen as part of the tug of war over city finances.

Koyanagi said the $5.5 million in the Grants-in-Aid fund is “quite a bit of money.” He also said it was about the same amount the council gave out last year.

“Five-and-a-half million dollars is a lot of money,” Koyanagi said. “To take an additional $9 million or $10 million from the general fund and put that toward grants in aid when these collective bargaining and other expenses are increasing, I’m not sure that this is the right time to do that.”

So far the city council hasn’t moved to take any of the earmarks out of the operating budget. Another committee meeting is scheduled to finalize the budget next week, and the full council is expected to vote on the spending plan on June 5. It will then go to the mayor for final adoption.

While Harimoto’s concerns Thursday focused on the operating budget, he has also taken umbrage with the $623 million capital budget.

Council earmarks in that budget are more than $50 million, again with Martin submitting the largest share.

Here’s a list of earmarks council members inserted in the operating budget for nonprofits and other special interests:

Amount Description Council member
$1.5 million Add funding for the Leeward Coast Community Benefits Program. Money will be split among Nanakuli, Waianae, Makakilo and Kapolei, and be used for community services and parks-related activities. Kymberly Pine, District 1
$125,000 Grant to the Hawaii Theatre Ernie Martin, District 2
$3.4 million Funding will be split among various groups and in varying amounts. A portion will go to programs that target at-risk use at Farrington, Campbell, Kapolei and Leilehua high schools. Some will go toward community revitalization programs in Wahiawa, Honolulu Crimestoppers, Project Think, Meals on Wheels, the Honolulu Community Police Foundation and Operation Kick Start. The North Shore will also receive funds for economic development. Ernie Martin, District 2
$2.5 million Add money for homeless support services in Central Oahu and the North Shore, a family center in Makakiki and a tutoring center for individuals with dyslexia. Funds will also go to designing and building multi-cultural community centers in Punaluu, Pawaa Inha Park and on the third floor of the Makiki Library. Ernie Martin, District 2
$150,000 Money should be used for program development support for artists and arts organizations that provide affordable housing and creative art spaces for artists in Kakaako Ann Kobayashi, District 5
$300,000 For youth afterschool demonstration project. Money will go a nonprofit that provides cultural activities, health and fitness training, sports, performing arts and employment skills Ann Kobayashi, Disctrict 5
$100,000 Give money to a nonprofit or community organization to promote economic revitalization in Chinatown along with other efforts to reduce crime and promote arts and culture. Will also go toward implementing city’s homelessness solutions action plan. Carol Fukunaga, District 6
$660,000 Appropriation for the Kokua Kalihi Valley’s Gulick Elder Care Center rehabilitation project Carol Fukunaga, District 6/Joey Manahan, District 7

Here’s a list of projects council members added to the capital budget:

Amount Description Council member
$2.74 million Plan, design and construct improvements on city portions of the Farrington Highway. Kymberly Pine, District 1
$2 million Design, plan, build and provide equipment for implementation of Makaha Beach Park Master Plan Kymberly Pine, District 1
$200,000 Design a permanent facility for the Royal Hawaiian Band. Ernie Martin, District 2
$1 million Mold, lead and asbestos removal on third floor and second floors of Honolulu Hale. Includes council chambers and committee meeting room. Ernie Martin, District 2
$1.5 million Buy land and design a new location for the Waialua Fire Station. Ernie Martin, District 2
$250,000 Improve Pulama Road so it can be used as an emergency bypass when Kamehameha Highway is closed due to accidents and natural disasters. Ernie Martin, District 2
$6.5 million Construct walkways and other roadside improvements along Kamehameha Highway in Haleiwa between Opaeula Stream Bridge and Anahulu River Bridge. Ernie Martin, District 2
$250,000 Ahilama Bridge replacement project. Design and construct a replacement bridge for the one-lane bridge. Ernie Martin, District 2
$1.5 million Roadway improvements for Waialua Beach Road to prevent ponding. Ernie Martin, District 2
$1.9 million Solicit nonprofits to develop and preserve affordable housing, including the Pacific Gateway Center if feasible. Ernie Martin, District 2
$1 million Complete planning, design and construction of Banzai Rock Skate Park. Ernie Martin, District 2
$500,000 Construct a canoe halau at Haleiwa Beach Park. Ernie Martin, District 2
$800,000 Hauula Civic Center improvements, including replacing flooring and windows and repairing the roof. Ernie Martin, District 2
$3.2 million New batting cage, field turf, lights and lightpoles for Kahuku District Park. Ernie Martin, District 2
$5 million Buy land at Turtle Bay for land conservation purposes, primarily at Kawela Bay. Ernie Martin, District 2
$2.9 million Construct and inspect a lighting system for a baseball field, basketball courts and tennis courts as Mililani Mauka District Park. Ernie Martin, District 2
$3.5 million Funds for the acquisition of land for land conservation purposes at Paiko Ridge. Ernie Martin, District 2
$500,000 Plan, design and construct restrooms at Wahiawa Transit Center. Ernie Martin, District 2
$1 million Expand Whitmore Gym in Wahiawa, including ADA improvements and installing metal security screen grilles on windows and doors. Ernie Martin, District 2
$747,000 Buy land and design a public parking lot in Haleiwa. Ernie Martin, District 2
$150,000 Street light improvements at Kionaole Road. Ikaika Anderson, District 3
$30,000 Install a flashing pedestrian safety signal at the intersection of Pahia Road and Kamehameha Highway. Ikaika Anderson, District 3
$300,000 Plan and design facilities and infrastructure for Oahu’s homeless population. Reduced from a $26 million proposal to construct a tent-city for the homeless. Stanley Chang, District 4
$500,000 Build sidewalks, curbs and gutters on Paoakalani Avenue in Waikiki. Stanley Chang, District 4
$200,000 Construct a replacement backstop and fencing at Aina Haina Park. Stanley Chang, District 4
$150,000 Expand pedestrian promenade along Kuhio Beach, which includes the removal of pavilions on Kuhio Beach along Kalakaua Avenue. Stanley Chang, District 2
$5.5 million Sidewalk construction along Nehoa Street from Punahou Street to Keeaumoku Street. Ann Kobayashi, District 5
$600,000 Equipment improvements to play apparatus and tennis court areas in Palolo Valley District Park to expand tennis programs. Ann Kobayashi, District 5
$1.1 million Buy land and construct a mixed-use living and working space for low-income artists and their families in the Kakaako area. Ann Kobayashi, District 5
$600,000 Build baseball field backstop, infield renovations and other improvements at Aiea District Park. Carol Fukunaga, District 6
$200,000 Replaces deteriorating play apparatus at Nuuanu Valley Park. Carol Fukunaga, District 6
$1 million Traffic improvements to connect Kuakini Street to Hala Drive to alleviate congestion at the intersection of Kuakini Street and Lanakila Avenue. Money won’t be spent unless there are federal matching dollars given to the city. Carol Fukunaga, District 6
$200,000 Resurfacing playcourts and renovating comfort station at Kamehameha Field Community Park. Joey Manahan, District 7
$200,000 Park improvements, including resurfacing playcourts at Kalihi Waena Neighborhood Park. Joey Manahan, District 7
$5 million Purchase, design and construct traffic engineering devices and Complete Streets demonstration projects at various locations. Breene Harimoto, District 8
$425,000 Repave existing tennis courts and tennis practice courts and convert to basketball and volleyball courts. Breene Harimoto, District 8
$30,000 Construct a crosswalk and ADA accessible ramp on Kuahelani Avenue. Ron Menor, District 9
$100,000 Plan and design a dog obedience facility for both large and small dogs at Patsy K. Mink Central Oahu Regional Park. Project should include training areas, shelters with benches, drinking fountains for dogs and other amenities. Ron Menor, District 9
$100,000 Plan and design a parking lot for Patsy K. Mink Central Oahu Regional Park. Ron Menor, District 9

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