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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Honolulu's park recreation programs may get slashed


By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Iris Wong exercises during an aerobics class at the Makua Alii Senior Center. All city recreation programs, including this one, could be in danger if the Legislature cuts hotel-room tax funds from the city.

Photos by ANDREW SHIMABUKU | The Honolulu Advertiser

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PARKS CUTS

What: Public hearing on possible cuts to city parks program

When: 2 p.m. today

Where: 3rd floor of Honolulu Hale

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Gary Yuen works on a clay bowl at Makua Alii Senior Center. About 58,000 people register for recreational park programs, the director said.

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Many users of the city's park recreational programs are expected to testify at Honolulu Hale today that they don't want to see senior, youth and other activities cut.

Among them will be 71-year-old June Clark of Kailua, who attends classes and meetings at the Kāne'ohe Senior Center two to four days a week.

"It would mean devastation," Clark said when asked what would happen if the Kāne'ohe senior programs were cut. "It's almost like a second home to me, as well as other seniors."

City Council Budget Chairman Nestor Garcia yesterday reiterated that if the state Legislature chooses to hold back a significant amount of the hotel-room tax revenues that now go to the counties, the city Parks and Recreation Department's $21 million recreational program budget could be axed.

While state lawmakers likely won't make a decision on transient accommodations taxes and other key budget issues until Friday, today is the day the council has designated as the public hearing day for the city's budget.

As of 2:30 p.m. yesterday, about 75 people had signed up to testify today on the budgets bills.

Clark, a retired federal contractor, said she's one of more than 350 seniors who regularly take classes in Hawaiian music, hula, line dancing, crafts, Japanese language and other subjects. Often, the seniors take what they learn and spread their knowledge and joy to care homes or hospitals, she said.

The programs give seniors something to look forward to, Clark said.

"Once I started going to the senior center, it opened up a whole new world for me because I was learning things," she said.

Clark said she would even agree to pay more taxes to support such programs, provided that whatever additional burdens apply to all Hawai'i residents as equally as possible.

JOBS, FACILITIES AFFECTED

City Parks Director Lester Chang said eliminating the $21 million recreational programs budget would wipe out practically any park-related activity that involves the use of parks personnel.

That would shut down not just senior programs and Summer Fun, but other organized activities ranging from boxing lessons to computer classes. All told, about 58,000 people register for recreational park programs, Chang said.

It would also result in the closure of 20 swimming pools, 24 gymnasiums and nearly 100 other recreational facilities that require lifeguards or other types of supervision.

And without the personnel to handle scheduling, even noncity sports leagues could be thrown into disarray because teams would have to compete "first-come, first-served" with other park users.

Chang said about 247 year-round, full-time equivalent jobs would be affected, as well as about 219 seasonal contract full-time equivalents. All told, about 1,250 employees could lose their jobs, he said.

"It is very dramatic, it would affect everything," Chang said. "Even if they were to take $5 million out of this, where would I take the $5 million from?"

Garcia, the budget chairman, said he has received a slew of calls and e-mails from park program users from ballroom dancers at the Ala Wai Golf Course Clubhouse to swimmers at the Mānoa Recreational Center Pool to soccer coaches from around the island, even a barber shop quartet.

He anticipates a large number of parks program supporters will show up for today's meeting. They'll be joined by supporters of the Royal Hawaiian Band, which has collected more than 4,300 supporters online on its Facebook page in less than two weeks, as well as those who support the Neighborhood Commission, the Office of Culture and the Arts, and the city Office of Economic Development.

Garcia has warned that those programs and agencies may also be cut if a large chunk of transient accommodations taxes is taken away from the counties by the Legislature to balance the budget.

The common thread among all the programs being considered is that they do not involve public health and safety, which Garcia and other top city officials have characterized as the main priority of city government.

But Roger Watanabe, president of the Hawaii Recreation and Park Association comprised of 200 professional recreation staff across the state, views parks and recreation programs as essential as the services provided by other city departments.

"Recreation has just as much an essential role in our community keeping us healthy and active," Watanabe said. "And during these tough economic times when people are looking for activities that are free or low cost, our programs and facilities fill that void."

"I'm glad that people are weighing in," Garcia said. And while "it's their right" to show up at City Hall to testify on behalf of their programs, he said, it's equally critical that those who don't want to see their city programs cut also lobby lawmakers at the state Capitol not to cut the counties' share of hotel room taxes.

State House and Senate leaders have until midnight Friday to close the state budget bill.

The House wants to cap the counties' share of hotel room tax revenues at $94 million, which is what the counties got this year, while the Senate wants to cap it at $50 million. Under the Senate version, Honolulu would lose about $20 million annually.

If lawmakers don't agree, Gov. Linda Lingle's original budget for 2011 would become law. The Lingle plan calls for taking away all of the estimated $99 million the counties would receive next year.

That would leave a $44.5 million hole in Honolulu's $1.82 billion operating budget.